A Kentucky deputy went to Trump’s D.C. rally. Now he’s under investigation at home.

A Kentucky deputy went to Trump’s D.C. rally. Now he’s under investigation at home.

Nathan Goodrich, who runs the public defender’s office in Franklin County, Kentucky, was on a Zoom call with court officials Jan. 6 when one of them flagged a Facebook post from a local narcotics detective who was going to a rally for outgoing President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C.

It was around noon, just before a mob of far-right rioters, including white supremacists and anti-government militia members, broke away from the rally and stormed the U.S. Capitol. Even then, the court officials on the call expressed concern about a local law enforcement officer attending an event supporting Trump’s false claim that the election had been stolen. “You and other defense attorneys are going to have a field day with him,” Goodrich recalled one of the officials telling him.

The detective, a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy named Jeff Farmer, did not join those who attacked the Capitol and has not been charged with a crime. But his participation in Trump’s rally put fresh focus on his work in Franklin County, where Goodrich and his co-workers say Farmer was known for his zealous pursuit of drug offenders.

Farmer, who is white, was popular among law enforcement and residents who’d sought his help with drug activity in their neighborhoods. But Goodrich and a local civil rights group knew his name because some of those Farmer arrested in recent years, including about half a dozen clients of the public defender’s office, claimed in court filings that he had improperly searched them, used excessive force or targeted them because they were Black.

The civil rights group, Focus on Race Relations: Frankfort, had shared Black residents’ concerns about Farmer with Sheriff Chris Quire last summer. Little had come of it: Many of the complaints were informal, and of the allegations that were raised in court, most had been dismissed by judges or abandoned when defendants agreed to plea deals.

But that changed Jan. 6, with Farmer suddenly in the spotlight. A public outcry led Quire to launch an investigation into Farmer’s participation in the rally and the previous complaints against him, which prompted a furious response from the deputy’s supporters. The debate has split a community already divided over Trump, the election results and the public’s trust in law enforcement.

The sheriff’s office has been barraged with messages — both complaints about Farmer and praise for him.

“Half of the county is against him, half of the county is for him,” said Capt. Daniel Wills, a spokesman for the department, who defended Farmer’s work ethic and said he has “done a tremendous job.”

Farmer declined to comment.

The conflict in Franklin County has been repeated across the country over the past month, as communities learn that local police officers traveled to Washington for the Trump demonstration. Some, including officers from Houston and Rocky Mount, Virginia, were accused of joining the Capitol riot and now face criminal charges.

But more than two dozen other police officers have said they attended the rally but did not join in the violence that followed. In addition to Farmer, the list includes a Kentucky state trooper, a police chief in New Hampshire, five Seattle officers and seven members of Philadelphia’s public transit police agency. Officers and their supporters say they were exercising their First Amendment rights.

While the officers have not been accused of breaking any laws, several agencies have launched internal investigations into possible violations of their codes of conduct. They also want to understand what drew the officers to the rally, which was timed to coincide with Congress’ certifying the election results and followed weeks of online mobilizing by extremist groups calling for an occupation of the Capitol.

“The march was based on a lie — ’stop the steal,’ the election was stolen,” Goodrich said. “So much of Deputy Farmer’s work as a detective is determining when people are telling the truth and lying to him. It raises questions about his ability to do his job as a detective when he’s engaged in a rally in support of a belief that so many members of the community believe is utterly without support.”

A trip to the rally
There was nothing secret about Farmer’s participation in the Jan. 6 rally. He documented his arrival with friends on Facebook, and after the siege wrote a post in which he called the rioters “idiots” and questioned whether they were really Trump supporters. (Farmer’s Facebook page has been deleted, but screenshots of the post were provided to NBC News by people who were friends with him on the site.)

The next day, on the drive back to Kentucky, Farmer got on a video call with a reporter from the local NBC affiliate in Lexington. Wearing a hoodie with a Fraternal Order of Police logo, Farmer said he’d gone to Washington to celebrate Trump’s four years in office.

In the courthouse and in neighborhoods with high drug traffic, Farmer is a familiar presence, welcomed by some and feared by others. People who have called the sheriff’s office to report drug activity and got a response from Farmer say he is relentless in his pursuit of the bottom- and mid-rung players in the local narcotics economy. Some of those who become his target say he often goes too far, using questionable reasons to stop, search and charge them — although the sheriff’s office says it has no record of formal complaints lodged against Farmer. His world is a tiny slice of America’s never-ending war on drugs.

Franklin County is the home of Frankfort, the state capital, and Kentucky State University, a historically Black institution; residents say it has a small-town feel. About 50,000 people live in the county, 82 percent of them white and about 9 percent Black. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2-to-1 — an anomaly in deeply red Kentucky — but Trump carried the county in November by 248 votes.

Because Frankfort is the seat of state power, it was the site of a number of emotionally charged protests in 2020, from Black Lives Matter marches in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor in a botched police raid in Louisville to conservative demonstrations against coronavirus lockdown orders. Partisan animosity over Trump’s election loss and his fraud allegation linger.

Talking over FaceTime in the back seat of a friend’s car Jan. 7, Farmer didn’t exactly say whether he believed Trump’s claim that the election was stolen. But he told the reporter that he didn’t “realistically” think the results would be overturned, and that he hadn’t expected violence, according to video of the interview provided by the affiliate, WLEX. He said he joined the rally to be present at something historic, and to people-watch.

“We kind of just wanted to see what would happen, and we knew that this would probably never happen again, that type of rally to support a president that’s going out,” Farmer said. “And, you know, there’s millions of Americans that think the election wasn’t exactly fair, you know, and there’s a lot of voting discrepancies and things like that and it’s just something we wanted to take part in and just see.”

Farmer said the “extremists” and “weak-minded” people who rioted had darkened an otherwise peaceful rally. He called the siege “embarrassing” and “disgraceful” and said he did not want to be identified with it.

But it was too late for that.

Old complaints get new life
Last summer, after the police killing of George Floyd sparked a national debate about race and policing, Focus on Race Relations: Frankfort began asking residents if they had problems with any local officers. Farmer’s name came up repeatedly, members said.

In late August, leaders of the group met in person with Quire, the sheriff, and told him that they’d heard stories about Farmer harassing people, using excessive force, racial profiling and not wearing a body camera, said Kristie Powe, the group’s president. The activists didn’t share the names of the people who’d complained, or when the run-ins with Farmer happened. They also mentioned Facebook posts in which Farmer allegedly had condemned a local school’s plans to assign a novel that discussed racism in law enforcement.

“I just wanted to know the facts, what is being done, and do you recognize this as an issue,” Powe, who is Black, recalled of the meeting with Quire. “I want to be fair, as well. I don’t know Farmer, I’m not trying to ruin his life. My concern is for the Black people in this community. There are problems that people are reporting and I want to make sure those are being addressed.”