As protests continue to bring cities across the United States to a standstill, the problem of racist policing is more evident than ever before. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis PD was just the latest in a long line of violent assaults on people of color by law enforcement, and his name joins an ever-growing list of people who have been killed by those who are sworn to protect and serve. The United States is grappling with the issue of police racism in front of the world, and the scale of the conversation currently happening is unprecedented, and sadly still not enough.
While the unconscious bias of some officers of the law has been laid bare for all to see, the conscious and hateful bias of others has remained largely in the shadows. The systemic issue of racial profiling is evident, but the hidden epidemic of far-right activism in police forces around the country is an insidious and even more dangerous threat. The links between the police and organized racism are as old as the institutions themselves.
Join the COVID-19 DemocracyWatch email list
Sign up for our global round-up of attacks on democracy during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Southern Police chiefs coordinated with local Ku Klux Klan chapters, and many officers and commissioners in the deep south were accused of aiding Klan activity and even being active members of Klan organizations. While this trend seems like an archaic symptom of the era of segregation, links between law enforcement and far-right organizations have remained constant through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and now are seemingly more widespread than ever.
The links between the police and organized racism are as old as the institutions themselves
In the 1990s, a federal judge found that a number of deputies in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office had concrete links to neo-Nazi organizations, and that a number of cases of police violence against Black and Latino communities had been motivated by their racist hostility and sympathies. Likewise in 2008, a prominent Chicago-area police officer was fired and prosecuted over links to the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2015, an FBI investigation found that white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement agencies was at epidemic levels, and suggested that right-wing and anti-government “domestic terrorists” were using links in law enforcement to gain intelligence, gain restricted access privileges, and ultimately evade capture. The report found that the vast majority of law enforcement agencies across the United States had no process in place for screening potential recruits for links to far-right organizations, and often turned a blind eye to those recruits with questionable political beliefs.
The Bureau was aware of widespread infiltration as early as 2006, suggesting in a heavily redacted report that white supremacist activists were taking advantage of weak vetting procedures in local law enforcement agencies to gain access to “restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage and to elected officials or protected persons, whom they could see as potential targets for violence”. The 2006 report suggested that this was a systematic effort, coordinated by high profile far-right figures such as William Pierce, and infiltration was seen as a key element in the philosophy of “leaderless resistance“. The report suggested a nationwide screening procedure be put in place in order to challenge the growing concerns about white supremacist affiliations within local police departments, but this was never implemented.
the vast majority of law enforcement agencies across the United States had no process in place for screening potential recruits for links to far-right organizations
Despite the concerns and recommendations outlined in the FBI’s most recent report, recent research has shown that the links between law enforcement and the extreme-right have continued to flourish. In mid-2019, a Reveal News investigation found that hundreds of active duty and retired law enforcement officers were members of online forums dedicated to Islamophobia, neo-Confederate ideology, and even neo-Nazism. Almost 400 police officers from 150 different departments had their identities verified, and many were found to have been actively peddling hate speech, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and anti-government rhetoric.
The Proud Boys in particular have strong links to law enforcement, and a number of high-profile investigations have highlighted the extent of the collusion between police and the hate group described as the “alt-right fight club”. In May 2020, Chicago PD officer Robert Bakker was found to have been an active member of a Proud Boy telegram channel called “Fuck Antifa”, where he actively coordinated Proud Boy meet-ups and bragged about his connections in the police department and the government.
Six months earlier, a police officer from East Hampton, Connecticut, was forced into retirement after his links to Proud Boy groups in the area. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law led an investigation into the officer’s social media activity, finding that he was an active member of the self-described “western chauvinist” group. A year before that, a female officer from Clark County, Washington, was fired after she was pictured wearing a Proud Boy sweatshirt, and was later discovered to have been merchandising Proud Boy apparel on the design-sharing RedBubble website.
Even in cases in which officers are not active members of hate groups, collusion remains a very real issue. In 2019 police officers in Washington D.C. were pictured fist-bumping Proud Boy members at a 4 July rally in front of the White House. The members of the group were then given a police escort to a local bar, while anti-fascist protestors were met with violence from both police and Proud Boy members.
In 2015, an FBI investigation found that white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement agencies was at epidemic levels
In an even more egregious case, an investigation in Portland, Oregon, found that a senior police officer had been exchanging friendly text messages with Joey Gibson. Gibson was the leader of the far-right Patriot Prayer, a sometimes violent offshoot of the Proud Boys defined by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. In the lead up to a number of high-profile clashes between the group and anti-fascist counter-demonstrators, Gibson and Lt. Jeff Niiya shared joking messages and talked about Patriot Prayer’s planned actions, with Niiya even telling Gibson that he had told officers to ignore outstanding warrants for the arrest of prominent member Tusitala Toese.
A separate investigation found that Niiya had submitted police reports on Gibson’s behalf, launching criminal investigations against “antifa activists” based on footage Gibson had privately sent him. This raised concerns that far-right demonstrators were being given preferential treatment by Portland Police, particularly given the reputation for forceful suppression of anti-fascist counter-protest in the city.
Although this trend reaches uniquely epidemic levels in the United States, the rest of the world is not immune. A 2019 report in Germany showed alarming levels of collusion between law enforcement and violent rightwing extremists. The investigation, led by the nation’s general prosecutor, found that the extreme-right Nordkreuz group had compiled a death-list of leftist activists, journalists and pro-refugee targets using police records, and were in the process of planning a major terror attack. It was found that the 30 members of the group had close ties to law enforcement, with at least one member was actively employed by a special commando unit of the state office of criminal investigations.
Although this trend reaches uniquely epidemic levels in the United States, the rest of the world is not immune
A recent investigation by Der Spiegel found that the elite unit, known as the KSK, openly tolerated extremist right-wing iconography and membership, even using widely-known Nazi codes such as “88”- code for HH, or Heil Hitler. The investigation uncovered high-level officers openly promoting “national-conservative ideology” and espousing racist ultranationalism. Earlier this year, a KSK soldier who reportedly had links to extremist groups was arrested after a weapons and explosives cache was found in his back yard. The German Government responded to the Der Spiegel exposé by launching their own investigation into the unit, finding that racist extremism was endemic across all ranks. As a result, the unit was officially disbanded in early July.
As historian Kathleen Blee has shown in her most recent book on the long history of the far-right’s links to the United States military, the siphoning of weaponry and ammunition from military bases to white supremacist organizations has been a constant tactic of would-be terrorist groups, and there is no doubt that the continued militarization of police forces in the United States and Europe, combined with the high levels of extremist infiltration, offers new avenues for the theft of high-grade weaponry and tactics and further armament of extremist rightwing groups.
These links between law enforcement and white supremacist organizations are deeply concerning, and present a very real threat to peace, justice and liberty in the United States and around the world. As police racism once again enters the spotlight it is more important than ever to examine and challenge the infiltration of law enforcement by racist extremists.
A centralized vetting process that directly seeks out links to organized racism and excludes candidates with any affiliation with far-right groups is the bare minimum, and should be the first step towards a total overhaul of the training and oversight procedures. Despite a number of legal challenges to the protective role of policing, law enforcement still exists at its core to protect and serve the people regardless of race, religion or creed, and any affiliation with hateful ideology compromises an officer’s ability to execute this role fairly and without prejudice.
Until the systemic and personal racism of law enforcement is no longer an issue, we will see more George Floyds, more Breonna Taylors, more murders in the name of law and order. Preventing and eliminating explicit racist bias in police departments across the US is only the first step towards a long process of reckoning and reconciliation.