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New Report: Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement

The report examines law enforcement’s inadequate response to officers’ explicit racist behavior and proposes a strategy to protect communities of color.

August 27, 2020
Contact: Mireya Navarro, Media Contact, mireya.navarro@nyu.edu, 646-925-8760

The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law today released Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Suprem­acy, and Far-Right Milit­ancy in Law Enforce­ment. The report exam­ines expli­cit racism in law enforce­ment and makes policy recom­mend­a­tions to federal, state and local govern­ments to identify officers involved in overt and organ­ized racism and ensure that their biases don’t hurt the people they are charged with protect­ing.

Accord­ing to report author Michael German, police reforms after incid­ents of racist miscon­duct or brutal­ity often focus on deal­ing with officers’ uncon­scious bias, but they leave unad­dressed expli­cit racism, an entrenched, espe­cially harm­ful form of bias within law enforce­ment that takes many forms, from member­ship with viol­ent white suprem­acist or far-right milit­ant groups like the KKK to overtly racist activ­it­ies in public and social media.

“Oper­at­ing under color of law,” German writes, racist officers “put the lives and liberty of people of color, reli­gious minor­it­ies, LGBTQ+ people, and anti-racist activ­ists at extreme risk, both through the viol­ence they can mete out directly and by their fail­ure to prop­erly respond when these communit­ies are victim­ized by other racist viol­ent crime. Biased poli­cing also tears at the fabric of Amer­ican soci­ety by under­min­ing public trust in equal justice and the rule of law.”

In Hidden in Plain Sight, German, a Bren­nan Center Fellow and former FBI agent, shows that federal, state, and local govern­ments are doing far too little even when the prob­lem of racist officers within law enforce­ment—­po­lice and sher­iffs’ depart­ments and federal agen­cies—is well-known. He points to a 2006 intel­li­gence assess­ment based on FBI invest­ig­a­tions and open sources that warned of “white suprem­acist infilt­ra­tion of law enforce­ment … by organ­ized groups and by self-initi­ated infilt­ra­tion by law enforce­ment person­nel sympath­etic to white suprem­acist causes.”

While only “a tiny percent­age” of law enforce­ment officers are likely to be active members of white suprem­acist groups, the report says, "overt bias is far too common." Since 2000, law enforce­ment offi­cials with alleged connec­tions to white suprem­acist groups or far-right milit­ant activ­it­ies have been exposed in many states, includ­ing Alabama, Cali­for­nia, Flor­ida, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas, and Wash­ing­ton.

Few law enforce­ment agen­cies have policies that specific­ally prohibit affil­i­at­ing with white suprem­acist groups. Instead, German writes, these officers typic­ally face discip­line, if punished at all, for more gener­ally defined prohib­i­tions against conduct detri­mental to the depart­ment or for viol­a­tions of anti-discrim­in­a­tion regu­la­tions or social media policies.

Among the key recom­mend­a­tions in Hidden in Plain Sight

  • Congress should direct the Justice Depart­ment to exam­ine law enforce­ment asso­ci­ations with white suprem­acist and other far-right milit­ant groups to assess the scope and nature of the prob­lem in a report to Congress, and develop a national strategy based on this review. A national strategy will ensure U.S. attor­neys and FBI offices across the coun­try prop­erly prior­it­ize these invest­ig­a­tions and harmon­ize their tactics to guar­an­tee equal justice for all.
  • Estab­lish a public hotline for report­ing racist activ­ity by law enforce­ment offi­cials and strengthen whis­tleblower protec­tions for law enforce­ment agents.
  • Require the FBI to survey its domestic terror­ism invest­ig­a­tions involving white suprem­acists and other overtly racist or fascist milit­ant groups to docu­ment and report to the Depart­ment of Justice all indic­a­tions of active links between these groups and law enforce­ment offi­cials. This would both inform the depart­ment’s assess­ment and national strategy and, where evid­ence of poten­tial civil rights viol­a­tions or other crim­inal activ­it­ies by these law enforce­ment officers exists, allow invest­ig­a­tions to be initi­ated.
  • Law enforce­ment agen­cies should estab­lish a formal mitig­a­tion plan for hand­ling an officer who poses a public secur­ity threat or a risk of harm to any protec­ted class or community. Such a plan could include federal, state, or local invest­ig­a­tions and prosec­u­tions; report­ing inform­a­tion identi­fy­ing the officer to other federal, state, or local author­it­ies for appro­pri­ate employ­ment action; and place­ment of iden­ti­fied officers on Brady lists main­tained by federal, state, and local prosec­utors to ensure that defend­ants in crim­inal cases and plaintiffs in civil actions against these officers have appro­pri­ate impeach­ment evid­ence avail­able. 

As an FBI agent in the 1990s, German infilt­rated neo-Nazi groups and mili­tia groups. He is the author, most recently, of Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Demo­cracy (The New Press, 2019).

Read the report here.