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White Supremacist Links to Law Enforcement Are an Urgent Concern

I was an FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacists. Too many local police don’t take the far right seriously — or they actively sympathize with them.

September 1, 2020
Militarized looking police officer with rifle
Stephanie Keith/Getty

This piece origin­ally appeared at the Guard­ian

For decades, the Federal Bureau of Invest­ig­a­tion has routinely warned its agents that the white suprem­acist and far-right milit­ant groups it invest­ig­ates often have links to law enforce­ment. Yet the justice depart­ment has no national strategy designed to protect the communit­ies policed by these danger­ously comprom­ised law enfor­cers. As our nation grapples with how to reima­gine public safety in the wake of the protests follow­ing the police killing of George Floyd, it is time to confront and resolve the persist­ent prob­lem of expli­cit racism in law enforce­ment.

I know about these routine warn­ings because I received them as a young FBI agent prepar­ing to accept an under­cover assign­ment against neo-Nazi groups in Los Angeles, Cali­for­nia, in 1992. But you don’t have to take my word for it. A redac­ted version of a 2006 FBI intel­li­gence assess­ment, White Suprem­acist Infilt­ra­tion of Law Enforce­ment, aler­ted agents to “both stra­tegic infilt­ra­tion by organ­ized groups and self-initi­ated infilt­ra­tion by law enforce­ment person­nel sympath­etic to white suprem­acist causes.”

A leaked 2015 counter-terror­ism policy guide made the case more directly, warn­ing agents that FBI “domestic terror­ism invest­ig­a­tions focused on mili­tia extrem­ists, white suprem­acist extrem­ists, and sover­eign citizen extrem­ists often have iden­ti­fied active links to law enforce­ment officers.”

If the govern­ment knew that al-Qaida or Isis had infilt­rated Amer­ican law enforce­ment agen­cies, it would undoubtedly initi­ate a nation­wide effort to identify them and neut­ral­ize the threat they posed. Yet white suprem­acists and far-right milit­ants have commit­ted far more attacks and killed more people in the U.S. over the last 10 years than any foreign terror­ist move­ment. The FBI regards them as the most lethal domestic terror threat. The need for national action is even more crit­ical.

In recent years, white suprem­acists have engaged in deadly rampages in Char­le­ston, South Caro­lina; Pitt­s­burgh, Pennsylvania; and El Paso, Texas. More omin­ously, neo-Nazis obtained radi­olo­gical mater­i­als to manu­fac­ture “dirty” bombs in separ­ate cases in Maine in 2009 and Flor­ida in 2017, which were only avoided through chance.

But in June 2019, when Congress­man William Lacy Clay asked the FBI counter-terror­ism chief, Michael McGar­rity, whether the bureau remained concerned about white suprem­acist infilt­ra­tion of law enforce­ment since the public­a­tion of its 2006 assess­ment, McGar­rity indic­ated he had not read it. Asked more gener­ally about this infilt­ra­tion, McGar­rity said he would be “suspect” of white suprem­acist police officers, but that their ideo­logy was a First Amend­ment–­pro­tec­ted right.

The 2006 assess­ment addresses this concern, however, by summar­iz­ing Supreme Court preced­ent on the issue: “Although the First Amend­ment’s free­dom of asso­ci­ation provi­sion protects an indi­vidu­al’s right to join white suprem­acist groups for the purposes of lawful activ­ity, the govern­ment can limit the employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies of group members who hold sens­it­ive public sector jobs, includ­ing jobs within law enforce­ment, when their member­ships would inter­fere with their duties.”

More import­antly, the FBI’s 2015 counter-terror­ism policy, which McGar­rity was respons­ible for execut­ing, indic­ates not just that members of law enforce­ment might hold white suprem­acist views, but that FBI domestic terror­ism invest­ig­a­tions have often iden­ti­fied “active links” between the subjects of these invest­ig­a­tions and law enforce­ment offi­cials. But its proposed remedy is stun­ningly inad­equate. It simply instructs agents to protect their invest­ig­a­tions by using the “silent hit” feature of the Terror­ist Screen­ing Center watch­list, so that police officers search­ing for them­selves or their white suprem­acist asso­ci­ates could not ascer­tain whether they were under FBI scru­tiny.

Of course, one does­n’t need access to secret FBI terror­ism invest­ig­a­tions to find evid­ence of expli­cit racism within law enforce­ment. Since 2000, law enforce­ment offi­cials with alleged connec­tions to white suprem­acist groups or far-right milit­ant activ­it­ies have been exposed in Alabama, Cali­for­nia, Connecti­cut, Flor­ida, Illinois, Louisi­ana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Wash­ing­ton, and West Virginia, among other states. Research organ­iz­a­tions have uncoveredhundreds of federal, state, and local law enforce­ment offi­cials parti­cip­at­ing in racist, nativ­ist, and sexist social media activ­ity, which demon­strates that overt bias is far too common.

Law enforce­ment offi­cials actively affil­i­at­ing with white suprem­acist and far-right milit­ant groups pose a seri­ous threat to people of color, reli­gious minor­it­ies, LGBTQ people, and anti-racist activ­ists. But the police response to nation­wide protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, includes a number of law enforce­ment officers across the coun­try flaunt­ing their affil­i­ation with far-right milit­ant groups.

A veteran sher­iff’s deputy monit­or­ing a Black Lives Matter protest in Orange County, Cali­for­nia, wore patches with logos of the Three Percen­t­ers and the Oath Keep­ers — far-right milit­ant groups that often chal­lenge the federal govern­ment’s author­ity — affixed to his bullet-proof vest.

A 13-year veteran of the Chicago Police Depart­ment with a long history of miscon­duct complaints was invest­ig­ated for wear­ing a face cover­ing with a Three Percen­t­ers’ logo while on duty at a recent protest. A super­visor pictured with him at the scene appar­ently did not order him to remove it.

In Phil­adelphia, police officers failed to inter­vene when mostly white mobs armed with bats, clubs, and long guns attacked journ­al­ists and protest­ers. The district attor­ney has vowed to invest­ig­ate the matter. The follow­ing month, however, Phil­adelphia police officers openly social­ized with several men wear­ing Proud Boys’ regalia and carry­ing the group’s flag at a “Back the Blue” party at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge.

Police officers casu­ally frat­ern­iz­ing with armed far-right mili­tia groups at protests is confound­ing because many states, includ­ing Cali­for­nia, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, have laws barring unreg­u­lated para­mil­it­ary activ­it­ies and far-right milit­ants have often killed police officers. The over­lap between mili­tia members and the Booga­loo move­ment — whose adher­ents have been arres­ted for incit­ing a riot in South Caro­lina and shoot­ing, bomb­ing, and killing police officers in Cali­for­nia — high­lights the threat that police engage­ment with these groups poses to their law enforce­ment part­ners.

Law enforce­ment agen­cies must do more to strengthen their anti-discrim­in­a­tion policies, improve applic­ant and employee screen­ing, estab­lish report­ing mech­an­isms, and protect and reward officers who report their colleagues’ racist miscon­duct.

Prosec­utors also have an import­ant role in protect­ing the integ­rity of the crim­inal justice system from the poten­tial miscon­duct of expli­citly racist officers. Prosec­utors keep a register of law enforce­ment officers whose previ­ous miscon­duct could reas­on­ably under­mine the reli­ab­il­ity of their testi­mony and need to be disclosed to defense attor­neys. This register is often referred to as a “Brady list”.

The Geor­getown law professor Vida B. John­son has argued that evid­ence of a law enforce­ment officer’s expli­citly racist beha­vior could reas­on­ably be expec­ted to impeach his or her testi­mony. Prosec­utors should be required to include these officers on Brady lists to ensure defend­ants they testify against have access to the poten­tially exculp­at­ing evid­ence of their expli­citly racist beha­vior.

My 1992 under­cover invest­ig­a­tion didn’t reveal any connec­tions between the neo-Nazi bomb­makers and weapons traf­fick­ers and law enforce­ment. In fact, the local law enforce­ment officers that worked with me on the invest­ig­a­tion were consum­mate profes­sion­als who I liter­ally trus­ted with my life. There are many more just like them.

But, however small, the pres­ence of active white suprem­acists in law enforce­ment must be treated as a matter of urgent concern. As Professor John­son has argued, the crim­inal justice system “can never achieve its purpor­ted goal of fair­ness while white suprem­acists continue to hide within police depart­ments.”