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Confronting Explicit Racism in Law Enforcement

We need a national strategy to identify police officers affiliated with violent racist and militant groups, says Brennan Center Fellow Michael German.

Published: September 4, 2020

Expli­cit racism persists in U.S. law enforce­ment, accord­ing to a new report by Bren­nan Center Fellow Michael German. Such racism appears in many forms — from member­ship in viol­ent white suprem­acist or far-right milit­ant groups to overtly racist activ­it­ies in public and on social media. German, a former FBI special agent who infilt­rated neo-Nazi groups and mili­tia groups in the 1990s, spoke with Mireya Navarro about ways to address racism in law enforce­ment, the role of prosec­utors, and the urgency of identi­fy­ing officers involved in overt and organ­ized racism to ensure that they don’t hurt the people they are supposed to protect.

In your report, you note that the FBI has acknow­ledged the links between white suprem­acist groups and law enforce­ment for years — but that the agency’s response has been “stun­ningly inad­equate.” Why haven’t federal law enforce­ment lead­ers tackled this prob­lem with more urgency?

One reason is that the struc­tural bias that exists in our coun­try produces a certain type of law enforce­ment leader. If you look at law enforce­ment — partic­u­larly federal law enforce­ment, but also many state and local law enforce­ment agen­cies — the agen­cies and their lead­ers are over­whelm­ingly white and over­whelm­ingly male. Struc­tural bias elev­ates people to posi­tions of power who are not threatened by white suprem­acy in a way they view as directly affect­ing them, their family, and their neigh­bor­hood.

How do we start fixing such an entrenched prob­lem? 

Right now, the FBI does­n’t know how many people white suprem­acists kill every year. They could­n’t tell you how many police officers today are active members of white suprem­acist organ­iz­a­tions. They acknow­ledge that some are members, but there’s no national effort to determ­ine who they are and how to protect soci­ety from them.

A national strategy is an essen­tial first step to identify the prob­lem. Then the attor­ney general must commu­nic­ate to the men and women through­out the FBI and the broader law enforce­ment community that this is a prob­lem that cannot remain behind closed doors and that we have to take it on. It can only succeed, however, if the public pres­sure remains — certainly the public repres­en­ted by the Black Lives Matter move­ment has made it clear that funda­mental change needs to happen — and if Congress, local govern­ment, and law enforce­ment lead­ers force the Justice Depart­ment to develop metrics to meas­ure their success in resolv­ing this prob­lem.

What role does racism play in police viol­ence and killings? 

We don’t know because the govern­ment has not attemp­ted to quantify the amount of ​white suprem­acist viol­ence that actu­ally exists in our soci­ety and who it impacts. Nor have we quan­ti­fied the extent of expli­cit racism in law enforce­ment. We don’t have enough data to say, “This prob­lem is the result of racism.” What we have is data show­ing that police viol­ence is used dispro­por­tion­ally against people of color, and we know that expli­cit racism contin­ues to be a prob­lem with law enforce­ment, yet we’re not address­ing it ​effect­ively. 

You make a distinc­tion between differ­ent forms of expli­cit racism — for example, between officers who are actively involved in a white suprem­acist or far-right group and those who make racist comments on social media. Why?

What we’ve seen is that racist conduct is ignored until it reaches a level that ​the public becomes aware of it — which then often, but not always, leads to termin­a­tion​. We must also have a mitig­a­tion plan in place to make sure that​ law enforce­ment agen­cies are protect­ing the public from​ every officer who has ​openly expressed ​racist views or engaged in racist activ­it­ies, whether it’s ​through retrain­ing, or addi­tional super­vi­sion, or audit­ing all their contacts with the public, or assign­ing them to some desk duty. There are ways to protect the public when a person’s beha­vior hasn’t reached the level where they can legally be termin­ated. 

What can prosec­utors do?

Prosec­utors have a signi­fic­ant role because the culmin­a­tion of the poli­cing is ​often a court proceed­ing. Prosec­utors need to pay atten­tion to whether they can trust the testi­mony of the officers who are provid­ing evid­ence in ​their cases. And if a person has engaged in expli­citly racist beha­vior, that could raise ques­tions about whether their testi­mony is trust­worthy. So, prosec­utors have an oblig­a­tion to identify law enforce­ment offi­cials who have engaged in expli­citly racist beha­vior and ensure that any ​such exculp­at­ory inform­a­tion is provided to the defend­ant. And they can do​ this by placing these officers on what is known as a Brady list or a no-call list, which ensures that their testi­mony can be ​prop­erly chal­lenged​ with evid­ence of their racist beha­vior by defense attor­neys, empower­ing the adversarial process.

How press­ing is it to get racist officers off the streets? 

The urgency has increased as more and more of these incid­ents of racist police viol­ence are being video recor­ded. What had been a “he-said, she-said” debate in courtrooms about what happened ​in viol­ent encoun­ters is lessened. We can see recor­ded evid­ence of police viol­ence that echoes stor­ies that have been told count­less times through­out the gener­a­tions, but now are indis­put­able.

Unfor­tu­nately, law enforce­ment has reacted to protests against police viol­ence by increas­ing the level and dispar­ity of the police viol­ence — the very issue​s that are rais­ing demands for reform at this moment. And the way we have spoken about reform around police racism is by fram­ing the issue in the context of struc­tural bias and impli­cit bias. But we must also wrestle with expli­cit bias. If we don’t address​ expli­cit bias, I don’t think there’s a chance that impli­cit bias or struc­tural bias train­ing is going to be very help­ful. This is not a prob­lem that we can just kick down the street with this impli­cit bias train­ing and pretend that​ it makes the prob­lem go away.

Read the full Bren­nan Center report, Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Suprem­acy, and Far-Right Milit­ancy in Law Enforce­ment