On Sunday morning, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, whether he thinks “systemic racism” is a problem in law enforcement agencies in the United States. O’Brien responded: “I don’t think there is systemic racism. I think 99.9 percent of our law enforcement officers are great Americans,” said O’Brien. “But … there’s a few bad apples.”
There are two flaws in O’Brien’s response. First, O’Brien ignores the well-documented support by law enforcement officers of alt-right extremist ideology throughout the country. Second, O’Brien misunderstands the nature of systemic racism—a term that means that institutions we have in place produce racially disparate effects on minority populations—in his discussion of individual officers.
An FBI intelligence assessment—titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” and published in 2006 during the administration of President George W. Bush—raised alarm over white supremacist groups’ interest in “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.” The report, based on FBI investigations and open sources, warned, for example, that skinhead groups were actively encouraging their members to become “ghost skins” within law enforcement agencies, a term the report said white supremacists use to describe members who “avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.”
In 2015, a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide, obtained by The Intercept, stated that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremism and its relationship to “violent radicalization” in the United States. The report’s principle researcher on the subject, Daryl Johnson, later 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.”
This may not be a coincidence.
An investigation published in 2019 by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers are members of Confederate-sympathizing, anti-Islam, or anti-government militia groups on Facebook. Within these private groups, members often are openly racist. Police officers have also been linked to groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, who believe in defending white Americans from “enslavement” and are actively hostile to immigrants. The investigation identified active-duty and retired police officers as active members in explicitly racist Facebook groups such as “Veterans Against islamic Filth” (the group deliberately lowercases “Islamic” in its name) and “PURGE WORLDWIDE (The Cure for the Islamic disease in your country).”
The leader of the Oath Keepers movement, Stewart Rhodes, bragged in 2009 that his anti-government group includes “thousands of retired and active law enforcement officers.” On May 30, during protests in New York City, a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer appears to have made a hand gesture that has been linked to white supremacist groups, which the New York Attorney General asked to be reported to her office.
Please report this and send the video to my office: Complaints@ag.ny.gov
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) May 31, 2020
The Plain View Project, a database of public Facebook comments made by nearly 2,900 current and former police officers in eight cities, suggested that nearly 1 in 5 of the current officers identified in the study made public posts or comments that appear “to endorse violence, racism and bigotry,” as reported by Buzzfeed News and Injustice Watch in a study of the database. For example, there are 1269 identified problematic posts from active duty Philadelphia police officers on the site. Of the 1073 Philadelphia police officers identified by the Plain View Project, 327 of them posted public content endorsing violence, racism and bigotry. Of those 327, at least 64 hold leadership roles within the force, serving as corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, or inspectors.
The history of racism and white supremacist membership in law enforcement agencies is long and well-documented. In the 1990s, a federal judge found that there was a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” of Los Angeles police deputies – self-styled “the Vikings” – that existed with the knowledge of police department officials. In 2015 and 2016, the San Francisco police department attempted to fire at least 17 officers after investigations revealed they were sending racist text messages.
The Ku Klux Klan historically – and even in recent years – has had ties to local law enforcement. In 2014, a police department in Central Florida fired two officers, one of whom was the deputy police chief, for being members of the Ku Klux Klan (commendably, the information in that case came from the FBI via the Florida Department of Law Enforcement). In 2015, a North Carolina police officer was pictured giving a Nazi salute at a KKK rally.
The failure of police units to discipline police officers over allegations of excessive use of force and/or for racist behavior or actions is part and parcel of the systemic issues protesters have demonstrated over for many years and in recent days.
The officer charged with George Floyd’s murder, Derek Chauvin, was the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints prior to Floyd’s death, almost all of which resulted in no discipline and the rest of which concluded with only a letter placed in his file. News reports say the nature of the complaints is unclear from the information the Minneapolis Police Department released, and that the department wouldn’t provide details.
In 2018, Buzzfeed News reported that at least 319 NYPD employees committed offenses, including harassment and assault in some cases, that were sufficient cause for termination between 2011 and 2015, but for which they were not fired. “Thirty-eight were found guilty by a police tribunal of excessive force, getting into a fight, or firing their gun unnecessarily,” according to the news outlet. Some officers who declined to be identified told Buzzfeed the internal investigations into the actions were “rife with favoritism, racism, and pressures to just plead guilty.”
Disciplinary systems that struggle to hold officers to account for other offenses will similarly fail to remove racist police officers, undermining public trust in entire departments. In Chicago, according to the Citizens Police Data Project, only 7 percent of all police complaints have resulted in any disciplinary action, including allegations of police officers using racial slurs. In 2018, the chief of police in Elkhart, Indiana not only did not discipline an officer but promoted him to sergeant despite the officer “using police communications equipment to refer to white power,” reports ProPublica.
Minneapolis Lieutenant Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, was previously a named defendant in a discrimination lawsuit brought by four black Minneapolis police officers against the Minneapolis Police Department for discrimination. In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that the Lieutenant openly wore a “White Power badge” on his a motorcycle jacket. Kroll, who admits that he is sometimes called racist but rejects the characterization, has referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “terrorist organization.”
As further indication of the extent of racism within law enforcement, under the Obama administration,15 police departments across the United States entered into consent decrees for police reform, which are binding agreements on police to enact court-enforced reforms, such as “preventing discriminatory policing and excessive force,” among other measures. The Justice Department report of its consent decree in Chicago, for instance, revealed that police department received over 30,000 complaints of officer misconduct in five years and determined that a “systematic pattern of excessive force within the Chicago Police Department has eroded trust among minority communities.”
Notably, on March 31, 2017, Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, ordered the Justice Department to review Obama-era consent decrees on police department reform and curbed their use by requiring political appointees to sign off on any future settlements. The Trump administration restriction on the use of the decrees was characterized as a transition away from protecting civil rights to promoting law and order. During his nomination hearings, Attorney General William Barr said he supported the Sessions’ policy. To date, the Trump administration has not issued any new consent decrees against police forces within the United States.
Of course, clearly by no means all police units or all members of police forces in the United States are members of racist or white supremacist groups or support alt-right ideology. Notable examples of strong relations with citizens and community-led policing in response to this past week’s protests include New Jersey police officers marching with Black Lives Matters protestors, the Dallas and Georgia’s police chiefs listening to and walking with protestors, and police in both New York City and South Florida kneeling in solidarity with protestors. In Flint, Michigan, Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson removed his riot gear and walked with marchers.
— Franklin White (@FranklinWSVN) May 30, 2020
But the term “systemic racism” does not mean that individuals who operate within the system are generally racists. Instead, it means the institutions we have in place produce racially disparate effects on minority populations. And, in that regard, there are well-documented empirical studies of systemic racism in law enforcement agencies—including the use of policies like stop and frisk and disparate rates of policing activities including traffic stops, searches of motorists during traffic stops, levels of respect shown during stops, misdemeanor arrests, marijuana arrests, use of SWAT teams, individuals jailed for inability to pay petty fines for moving violations, militarized policing of different neighborhoods, resolution of murders of white versus black victims, sustained complaints against police officers, and unarmed victims of police shootings.
The evidence of links to explicit white supremacist groups is surely only the tip of a racist iceberg. Other forms of racism that affect all our institutions—without sparing law enforcement agencies—include explicit and implicit racial bias. O’Brien’s comments leave no assurance that he has a command of the facts or if he does that he is willing to acknowledge or seriously grapple with them.