In 2006, the FBI issued a bulletin detailing the threat of white supremacists infiltrating police in order to disrupt investigations against fellow members and recruit other white nationalists. It was released during a scandalous period for many law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including a Neo-Nazi gang formed by members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who harassed black and Latino communities. Similar investigations revealed officers and entire agencies with hate group ties in Illinois, Ohio, and Texas. The FBI identified white supremacists in law enforcement as a concern because their access to both, “restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage” and elected officials or people who could be seen as “potential targets for violence.” Not to mention, such infiltration, “can lead to investigative breaches and can jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources or personnel.” The report also warned of “goat skins,” which are hate groups who don’t overtly display their beliefs to “blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” And in at least one case, the FBI learned of a skinhead group encouraging ghost skins seeking employment with law enforcement agencies to warn crews of any investigations.
American policing has always had racial implications. The earliest form of organized law enforcement in the country can be traced to slave patrols that tracked down escaped slaves and overseers assigned to guard settler communities from Native Americans. In the centuries since, many law enforcement agencies have directly participated in antagonizing communities of color or provided a shield for others who did. But since the FBI’s 2006 report came out, little has changed. Though several agencies nationwide have launched internal investigations into personnel who may not be formal hate group members, but face allegations of racial misconduct. While social media has made it easier to expose white supremacists in law enforcement. Yet, none of the over 18,000 law enforcement agencies have established systems for vetting potential supremacist links, many of which have deep historical connections to racist ideologies.
But since the FBI’s report, problems with white supremacists in law enforcement have surfaced since then. In 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center exposed an Alabama officer as a member of the white nationalist League of the South after speaking at a national conference. In 2014, 2 Florida officers, including a deputy police chief, were fired after an FBI informant outed them as Klu Klux Klan members. In September 2015, a North Carolina police officer was fired after a picture of him giving the Nazi salute appeared on Facebook. That same year a Baton Rouge police officer resigned after being linked to racist text messages. Another instance has an Oklahoma sheriff resigned after his name was connected to a white supremacist website. And in August 2016, the Philadelphia Police Department launched an internal investigation after attendees at Black Lives Matter rally outside the Democratic National Convention spotted an officer in charge of crowd control with a Nazi emblem tattoo on his forearm and posted the image on Instagram.
With the rise of white supremacist violence during the Trump era, we need to treat this threat very seriously. Shortly after Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, a 2009 Department of Homeland Security study written in coordination with the FBI warned of a “resurgence” of right-wing extremism. The report noted, “Right-wing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African-American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda.” Since then, white supremacist violence and right-wing terror has been on the rise along with the increased presence of the alt-right.
In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, a man endorsed and celebrated by the KKK since he’s been reluctant to disassociate himself from anyone espousing white supremacist views. In turn, he has appointed key administration advisers with ties to the radical right like Steve Bannon, Steve Miller, and Sebastian Gorka. His policy initiatives like revving up the nation’s deportation machine and curtailing civil rights enforcement thrilled white supremacists. Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions have shown deference to law enforcement and retreated from federal oversight of police departments with a history of civil rights violations, brutality, and racial violence. As a result, the latest incarnation of white supremacy broke through the firewall that for decades kept overt racists largely out of the political and media mainstream. Reinvigorated white supremacists staged their largest rally in a decade at the demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left an anti-racist counter-protester dead and Trump equivocating over condemning racism. Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke called the rally a “turning point” and vowed that white supremacists would “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” White supremacists also stepped up their college campus recruiting drives. White nationalist leader Richard Spencer held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial and appeared at colleges. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented some 300 incidents of racist flyers distributed on over 200 college campuses.
Why should we worry about white supremacists in law enforcement?
In a country where 74% of extremist killings and attacks over the past decade were by right-wing extremists, particularly white supremacists, it’s a serious problem when police are among the terrorists. As Chicago’s John Marshall School of Law professor Samuel Jones told PBS in 2016, “Many people in these communities of color feel they have been the subject of police violence for decades. And when an officer engages in conduct that adds or enhances that divide, they are ultimately jeopardizing the integrity of their agencies and putting their fellow officers in danger.” Jones also told The Intercept in 2017, “When somebody holds a belief that indicates that they do not see all Americans are worthy of equal protection under the law, it compromises their ability to be a police officer.”
White supremacists come from all walks of life. They can be your neighbors, co-workers, employers, friends, and even relatives. They can be teachers, professors, cashiers, doctors, lawyers, clerics, drivers, waitstaff, accountants, firefighters, garbage collectors, mail carriers, programmers, and just about anyone else you can think of, including police. But if you have a white supremacist in a public service position like a teacher or cop, the problem isn’t that they subscribe to a radical belief system. Rather, it’s that their beliefs encourage bigoted and sometimes violent behavior that are inappropriate for anyone involved in public service, particularly those with authority over others. White supremacists also create a toxic work environment and poison relations with the public.
Many white supremacists maintain positions and jobs within mainstream society while acting with plausible deniability on behalf of their racist beliefs. They do this through paying “lip service” to normal diversity standards and playing what’s called “a dog and pony show” when it came time to public proclamations. But then acting every other regard as a white nationalist ideologue would: discriminating against minorities in their choices and actions, believing them to be innately inferior, presuming that liberals and Jews are conspiring to harm them, etc. You can see this kind of strategy on full display on Breitbart and Fox News.
If you have these white supremacists in positions of authority like law enforcement, it’s very scary notion for minorities, especially black people. Since police kill black people 2.5 more frequently than whites and unarmed black people at 5 times the rate of whites. The fact, white supremacist infiltration in law enforcement provides context to the scourge of racial police violence against black people which is often downplayed if not denied by segments of society and an administration endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police. While racism in the police is nothing new, the idea that white supremacists might be your friendly neighborhood police can add a layer of fear and distrust for communities of color.
There is also evidence that police departments have asked for and accepted help from far-right protestors during tense rallies and counter-protests where violence isn’t infrequent. The relationship works both ways: Police get help and the alt-right demonstrators are seemingly put above the law in return. As a result, militia members working for alt-right events carry out policing activities with impunity under the gaze of actual law enforcement. In 2011, police bused Neo-Nazis to a rally in Trenton, New Jersey to maintain order. In 2014, Chattanooga cops arranged parking for white nationalists along with a route for them to march safely to a protest site. In June 2016, violence broke out at a Sacramento neo-Nazi rally between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protestors at the California State Capitol. 10 people were injured, 5 of them stabbed. Despite footage showing that neo-Nazis were responsible for most of the violence, especially the stabbings, Sacramento police arrested 3 counter-protestors who were charged with felonies despite claiming self-defense. One was a Berkeley teacher and anti-fascist organizer named Yvette Felarca who was charged with assault and rioting after a neo-Nazi stabbed her and bludgeoned her in the head. Later court documents reveal that California police investigating the white nationalist event worked with white supremacists in to identify counter-protestors and sought the prosecution of activists with “anti-racist” beliefs. The records also showed police officers expressing sympathy with white supremacists and trying to protect a neo-Nazi organizer’s identity. In June 2017, police allowed members of a right-wing militia style group help police arrest anti-fascist activists at an alt-right event in Portland, Oregon. Former FBI agent and Brennan Center fellow Michael German told the Huffington Post, “That is extremely dangerous. To give these groups the idea that their violence is sanctioned by the state will make them far more violent and far more dangerous in the long run. Not to mention the failing to police these running street battles will encourage them to come to the next protest prepared.” On the other hand, the police weren’t so accommodating to peaceful, unarmed Black Lives Matter demonstrators protesting police brutality and racism in Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri or nonviolent Standing Rock Indian activists in North Dakota who were trying to protect their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline. I mean police were in full riot gear with military equipment on all those occasions, especially at Standing Rock. Nor did they seem doing their jobs protecting counter-protestors in Charlottesville since they appeared to disappear when the violence got really ugly.
But it’s not just people of color or left-wing protestors who have to worry about white supremacists in law enforcement. Right-wing extremists are systematically more anti-government/anti-cop than any other group. Since 1990 they have been responsible for 45 police killings. It also doesn’t help that law enforcement are more likely to encounter dangerous extremists than virtually any other segment of American society and those confrontations are, tragically, sometimes fatal. The fact white supremacists are often armed to the teeth during their alt-right rallies can be enough to put police in a state of fear and inability of what to do, especially in states with loose gun laws like the open-carry state of Virginia. But law enforcement doing nothing just enables these white supremacist whack jobs inflict violence. The lack of a police response to the Charlottesville violence in August 2017 led one chat user write that the Virginia State Police, “will be focused on antifa [anti-fascists] not us … especially if we kiss some ass with a few blue lives matter chants …. Be nice to cops and they will be nice to you.”
How long has white supremacy in law enforcement been a problem?
This has been around for a very long time. In fact, infiltrating law enforcement is considered a long-standings strategy for white supremacists, which has long influenced law enforcement agencies at the local and state levels. As former skinhead Christian Picciolini told 60 Minutes, “We encouraged people to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to recruit there.” But it’s only in recent years that we fully acknowledged it as a problem. As sociologist Peter Simi told The Intercept, “If you look at the history of law enforcement in the United States, it is a history of white supremacy, to put it bluntly,” citing origins in the slave patrols of the 18th and 19th centuries. “More recently, just going back 50 years, law enforcement, particularly in the South, was filled with Klan members.” A KKK chapter and a county sheriff’s office were involved in the 1964 arrest, abduction, and murder of 3 civil rights workers named Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Though the FBI has acknowledged it has a problem in 2006, it has only been after a series of scandals involving local police and sheriff’s departments.
In 1991, a US District Court judge in Los Angeles found that members of a local sheriff’s department had formed a neo-Nazi gang and habitually terrorized black and Latino residents.
In 2008, a Chicago police detective and rumored KKK member John Burge was fired and prosecuted over charges relating to torture of at least 120 black men during his decades-long career. Burge notoriously referred to an electric shock device he used during interrogations as the “nigger box.”
In Cleveland, officials found that a number of police officers have scrawled “racist or Nazi graffiti” throughout their department’s locker rooms.
In Texas, 2 police officers were fired upon discovery they were Klansmen. One of them said he tried boosting the organization’s membership by giving an application to a fellow officer he thought shared his, “white, Christian, heterosexual values.”
How widespread is this problem?
It’s practically nationwide as you can see from my examples above. However, according to a report from the Root, this current infiltration has everything to do with the racist social climate, the Trump administration, and the long-standing history of racism amongst law enforcement and black people. Many law enforcement agencies have deep historical ties to racist ideologies. Since no centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement, state and local police as well as sheriff’s departments present ample opportunities for white supremacists and other right-wing extremists looking to expand their power base.
Without available training for identifying and acting on extremist infiltration thanks to Napolitano’s actions over the right-wing fallout on the 2009 DHS report, groups like the Oath Keepers, the Peace Officers Association, the Three Percenters, and the Constitutional Sheriffs took advantage of the security vacuum to recruit and metastasize, like ISIS and Al Qaeda do in other parts of the world. These efforts in large part targeted active and retired law enforcement officers. Right-wing extremists don’t just recruit from the law enforcement community, they also infiltrate their ranks. As Picciolini told Fairfax Media, “Many people from my crew went on to be Chicago police officers, they went on to be prison guards, and they certainly took their ideology with them. A lot of people that I know ended up enlisting in the military to recruit [racists] and to get weapons and combat training.”
Why would white supremacists want to be cops?
The answer is simple, so they can get away with shit. It’s technically legal for a law enforcement officer to espouse hateful, racist views or belong to a hate group. And though it’s a federal crime to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group, there’s no such law supporting a white supremacist one. As an 2015 FBI counter-terrorism guide reads, “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.” A link to law enforcement gives white supremacists some legitimacy and leeway to do all the horrible things they want while still appearing respectable to the community. One white supremacist chat board user wrote, “Be me in my Criminal investigation class. We’re doing introductions and it gets to me. They ask me what kind of police officer I wanted to be and I responded with ‘Riot Police Officer.’ They asked why and I instantly responded with ‘I like curb stomping protestors who cause a riot.’ I think the professor likes me.”
Are cops prone to becoming white supremacists?
Yes, since non-radical police officers are common targets for white supremacist recruiters. As Picciolini told Democracy Now!, “Police officers and law enforcement officers and military people are constantly, every day, in difficult situations. And over time, people become jaded, especially after you’ve … worked in crime-ridden neighborhoods for 20 years, and you’ve had to deal with sometimes the worst of the worst people. Well, recruiters know this. Recruiters know that they become jaded, and they become prejudiced towards these people.” One white supremacist chat board user wrote, “I have several cops in my family, most white cops are sympathetic to us.” They added, “I’m not too worried about the cops as long as we act like whites …. Get to know more cops [in real life] No one hates niggers more than white cops.”
How many cops are white supremacists?
There aren’t many statistics, but we’re talking about a small number. But even though they’re outliers, they can inflict plenty of damage in their wake. But fortunately, white supremacy in the police force isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be. Mostly because white supremacy and racism has become significantly less acceptable in society in general. That doesn’t mean we have problems with either in the police. Because we certainly do.
If the FBI and DHS knew about white supremacy in law enforcement for years, why don’t we hear it addressed?
The FBI and DHS had. But federal investigators have been reluctant to publicly address the growing threat of right-wing extremists or point out the movement’s longstanding strategy of infiltrating the law enforcement community. Since the 2009 DHS report was released just ahead of the nationwide Tea Party protests, it caused an uproar among conservatives who were particularly pissed over the suggestion that veterans might be implicated and how the report seemed to depict the range of right-wing groups. Faced with mounting criticism, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano disavowed the document and apologized to veterans. Despite that this document was researched, compiled, and written by officials in the George W. Bush administration. And despite that the document singled out “disgruntled military veterans” as targets of recruitment by right-wing extremists to “exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” Because the military has long been a hotbed for white supremacist recruiting activity and many well-known white supremacist terrorists were former servicemen like some of the alt-right leaders in Charlottesville. The agency’s unit investigating right-wing extremism was largely dismantled and the reports lead investigator was pushed out. Heidi Berich from the SPLC told The Intercept, “They stopped doing intel on that, and that was that. The FBI in theory investigates right-wing terrorism and right-wing extremism, but they have limited resources. The loss of that unit was a loss for a lot of people who did this kind of work.”
It’s widely said that the backlash following the 2009 DHS report hindered further action against the growing white supremacist threat and that it was largely ignored because the issue was so politically controversial. Samuel Jones told The Intercept, “I believe that because that report was so denounced by conservatives, it sort of closed the door on whatever the FBI may have been considering doing with respect to combating infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists. Because after the 2006 FBI report, we simply cannot find anything by local law enforcement or the federal government that addresses this issue.” Chapman University sociologist Peter Simi agreed, “The report underscores the problem of even discussing this issue. It underscores how difficult this issue is to get any traction on, because a lot of people don’t want to discuss this, let alone actually do something about it.”
DT Analytics’s Daryl Johnson was the lead researcher on the DHS report told The Intercept, “Federal law enforcement agencies in general — the FBI, the Marshals, the ATF — are aware that extremists have infiltrated state and local law enforcement agencies and that there are people in law enforcement agencies that may be sympathetic to these groups.” And according to him, the problem has since gotten “a lot more troublesome.” Because local police departments don’t seem to do anything to address the issue. “There’s not even any training now to make state and local police aware of these groups and how they could infiltrate their ranks.” As Samuel Jones told The Intercept, “For some reason, we have stepped away from the threat of domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism. The only way we can reconcile this kind of behavior is if we accept the possibility that the ideology that permeates white nationalists and white supremacists is something that many in our federal and law enforcement communities understand and may be in sympathy with.”
How do we combat the problem of white supremacists in law enforcement?
Stricter screenings for bias and white supremacist ties is a start. After a series of investigations uncovered substantial numbers of extremists in the military, the Department of Defense moved to impose stricter screenings, including monitoring recruits’ tattoos for white supremacist symbols and discharged those found to espouse racist views. As the SPLC’s Beirich told The Intercept, “The military has completely reformed its process on this front. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be the same for police officers; we can’t have people with guns having crazy ideas or ideas that threaten certain populations.” However, the clean-cut khaki-wearing racists are less detectible as military recruits so having white supremacists in the military is still a very serious problem. An Army Times survey of 1,000 active-duty troops found that 1 in 4 respondents had witnessed concrete instances of white nationalism among fellow troops and around 5% wrote comments disparaging the poll’s methodology and complaining that groups like Black Lives Matter weren’t included as an example of encroaching extremist threat.
But reforming police is a lot harder than the military due to the way decentralized way thousands of police departments across the country operate, the historical affinity of certain police departments with the same racial ideologies espoused by extremists, and an even broader reluctance to do much about it. Seattle former police chief Norm Stamper told The Intercept, “There are police agencies throughout the South and beyond that come from that tradition. To think that that kind of thinking has dissolved somehow is myopic at best.” Though he admitted to firing officers expressing racist views, he added, “It’s not likely to happen in most police departments, because many of those departments come from a tradition of saying the officer is entitled to his or her opinions.”
First Amendment issues relating to freedoms of association and expression can also get in the way. Long as it’s for legal of activity, it’s technically legal for anyone in law enforcement or public office to join a hate group. But according to the 2006 FBI memo, the government can limit opportunities of members “when their memberships would interfere with their duties.” John Marshall School of Law’s Samuel Jones thinks it’s problematic. “I cannot imagine that the FBI today could issue a report concerning any kind of threat without people being alarmed and wanting immediate action,” he told PBS. “But in this case there seems to be almost an acceptance of it. The thought is ‘it’s just ideology and they have a right to believe this.’” Nonetheless, whether the First Amendment protects an officer’s right to express racist, white supremacist views or associate with organizations that endorse them remains a subject of debate. As Stamper told The Intercept, “You can fire someone. Whether the termination will stand up under review is the real question.”
Although police officers have been fired for expressing hateful views, they’re sometimes rehired by other departments as happens regularly when officers are accused of misconduct. But some officers have also challenged those dismissals in court. For instance, 18-year veteran of the Nebraska State Patrol Robert Henderson was fired when his Klan membership was discovered. He sued on First Amendment grounds and appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. In 2016, 14 San Francisco police officers were caught exchanging racist and homophobic texts including several references to “white power” and messages such as “all niggers must fucking hang.” Most of them remain on the force after an attempt to fire several of them was blocked by a judge, saying that the statute of limitations had expired.
Jones had been tracking similar incidents following the 2006 report and believes many more get buried the code of silence often dominating police departments. “All agencies, if they want to, can curtail this problem — the problem is that many do not.”
How are we combating the problem now?
According to the FBI Counter Terrorism Policy Guide, the FBI has the option to mark a watchlisted police officer as a “silent hit,” thus preventing queries to the National Crime Information Center from returning a record that identifies the officer as having been flagged as a known or suspected terrorist. The document states that a “specific, narrowly defined, and legitimate operational justification” must be given to mark a Known or Suspected Terrorist (KST) as a silent hit. The suspect’s membership or affiliation with law enforcement or military agency is one of the justifications listed, implying that extremist infiltration is enough of a concern that the FBI has built-in protocols to prevent domestic terror investigations from being obstructed by members of law enforcement. However, the counterterrorism guide doesn’t specify the conditions under which the FBI will notify local law enforcement whose members may be under surveillance as silent hits. A former agent who specialized in domestic terror investigations told The Intercept that such alerts are handled on a, “case-by-case basis,” adding, “Typically, if someone in the police department is suspect, unless it’s an extreme case of leadership, professional courtesy requires some sort of notification.”
What can we do about white supremacists in law enforcement?
If you think a police officer in your local neighborhood is a white supremacist, say something about it by either posting a picture or video on social media. If you can trust them, you might want to discuss it with your local and state police department. You can also notify the feds or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here’s a link:
If you’re a law enforcement officer and want to do something about white supremacists in your community, I believe the Southern Law Center has you covered. But if you know a colleague associated with white supremacy, either tell your superior, notify the feds, or the SLPC.
But more importantly, we need to address white supremacist violence as a serious problem in this country and need to demand better ways to prevent it and combat it. Rooting out white supremacists in the police force through better screenings should be a major priority. Yet, more importantly we need to demand our law enforcement treat white supremacists at demonstrations as the security risks and danger they are, especially in the mainstream. Unless police are properly trained to handle hate crimes, white supremacists, and right-wing terror, then white supremacists will have little reason to fear the authorities, especially if their fellow members are on the force.