‘Explicit racism’ has remained entrenched in police departments over the past two decades, a report authored by a former FBI agent revealed, highlighting the links between extremist organisations and officers.
As Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests continue to engulf cities across the US, the issue of racist policing remains a topic of conversation nationwide, sparked by the murder of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of the Minneapolis police department.
Floyd was the latest victim added to the ever-growing list of unarmed black men and women brutally killed at the hands of those who are sworn to protect and serve.
While unconscious biases of some police personnel are evident and systemic issues of racial profiling are understood, conscious prejudice has remained largely hidden.
That makes a new report published by the nonpartisan law and policy institute The Brennan Center, which uncovers the epidemic of far-right extremism and racism embedded in police forces around the country, all the more timely.
Titled ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement’ and authored by Michael German, a former FBI special agent, the report examines American law enforcement response to racist behaviour, white supremacy, and far-right militancy within its ranks and recommends policy solutions to inform an effective response.
In the US, there is no federal policy for screening or monitoring the country’s 800,000 law enforcement officers for extremist views. The 18,000 police departments nationwide are then left to police themselves.
Police reforms, often imposed after incidents of racist misconduct or violence, have focused on measures like bias training to root out discriminatory practices in law enforcement agencies.
However, such reforms have left “unaddressed an especially harmful form of bias, which remains entrenched within law enforcement: explicit racism,” German said.
The report primarily documents evidence of overt racism within law enforcement across the US since 2000. Officials with suspected links to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities have been revealed in states including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
Concerns about ties between racialist groups and police have intensified since the start of the latest round of BLM protests. The report mentions that officers in California, Oregon, Illinois and Washington are currently facing investigations for alleged links to far-right organisations that oppose BLM.
Just this week in Wisconsin, Kenosha police were met with scrutiny over their indifferent response to armed vigilantes and militia groups in the city amid demonstrations over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man who was left paralysed after being shot seven times in the back.
Before 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a white militia member who killed two protestors and later arrested, a video showed police tossing bottled water to armed civilians, including Rittenhouse, as an officer said “we appreciate you being here,” over the loudspeaker.
Following Floyd’s murder, a number of police officers across the country were found flaunting their affiliation with far-right groups this summer.
A deputy sheriff in Orange County was photographed wearing patches with the logos of far-right militant groups Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers; photos emerged of a Chicago PD veteran with a Three Percenters’ logo face covering; an officer in Olympia was photographed posing with Three Percenters of Washington, which one of the militia members posted on social media; and Philadelphia police stood by while armed white mobs attacked journalists and protestors.
Collusion between police and the far-right hate group Proud Boys, described as the “alt-right fight club,” are highlighted too.
In May, a Chicago PD officer was found to have been a member of a Proud Boy telegram channel, where he actively coordinated meet-ups and bragged about his connections in the police department. In 2019, police were pictured fist-bumping Proud Boy members in front of the White House at a July 4 rally in Washington DC.
In 2019, a Reveal News investigation found that hundreds of active duty and retired officers were members of online forums that espoused neo-Nazism, neo-Confederate ideology, and Islamophobia. Nearly 400 officers from 150 different departments had their identities verified and were found to be actively engaged in hate speech.
The Klu Klux Klan (KKK) has long enjoyed historical ties to local law enforcement. More recently in 2014, a Central Florida PD fired two officers for being KKK members. In 2015, a North Carolina officer was pictured giving a Nazi salute at a KKK rally.
For those who do not associate with militant extremist groups, racist activity is found broadcasted over social media or in work-only communication channels.
The 2019 Plain View Project documented 5,000 bigoted social media posts by 3,500 accounts that belonged to current and former law enforcement officers, eventually leading to numerous investigations.
Failure to mitigate
The US government has long known of the threat posed by far-right infiltration of policing departments.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have identified white supremacists as the most dangerous domestic terror threat in the country.
In a heavily redacted 2006 memo, the FBI raised the alarm that white supremacists were taking advantage of weak vetting procedures in local law enforcement agencies to gain access to “restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage” and elected officials or people who could be seen as “potential targets for violence.”
The memo also warned of “ghost skins,” hate group members who don’t overtly display their beliefs in order to “blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.”
A classified 2015 FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide, obtained by The Intercept and reported on in 2017, stated that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
At the moment agencies lack a national strategy to identify white supremacy and root it out, German warned.
One of the issues with identifying extremism is that most departments do not have policies that prohibit affiliating with white supremacist groups, and public employees fired on such grounds can cite violations of their First Amendment free speech and association rights.
Contemporary far-right militias and white supremacist organisations, many which form extemporaneously, splinter, and employ disinformation to conceal their activities, can also make it difficult for administrators to determine an officer’s affiliation with a particular group.
German noted since there is no central database that lists officers dismissed for racist misconduct, instances where the same officer secures employment again at a different police department is not uncommon.
In 2017, a police chief in Oklahoma resigned after a local media reported his decades-long involvement with neo-Nazi groups, only to be hired by a neighbouring department the following year.
The absence of government will to redress cases of police violence and racism has continued to linger.
A Reuters analysis of Department of Justice records showed that federal prosecutors declined to prosecute 96 percent of FBI civil rights investigations involving police misconduct from 1995 to 2015.