White supremacy and American policing

White supremacy and American policing
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The assault on the U.S. Capitol has drawn attention to the presence of far-right extremists in the U.S. military and law enforcement. While the Pentagon has taken steps to address the problem, the police chiefs will have a much harder time rooting out extremism in their departments.

The U.S. military is a centralized, hierarchical organization. Orders from the top can quickly be implemented throughout the armed services while law enforcement is highly decentralized. The United States has more than 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. This decentralization makes it easier for extremist groups to recruit police and harder for departments to remove officers who join them.

Racism in American law enforcement has a long, ugly history. Beginning in 1704, Southern communities created “slave patrols,” bodies of armed officers empowered to intimidate enslaved people, capture and return those who escaped and deter slave rebellions. After the Civil War the patrols developed into police departments. During the era of Jim Crow, police enforced segregation and even participated in extrajudicial violence, sometimes handing African American prisoners over to lynch mobs. Members of law enforcement joined the Ku Klux Klan and even served as its leaders.

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When African Americans left the South during the Great Migration, Northern police departments viewed them with suspicion and aggressively patrolled their neighborhoods. Officers viewed their task as protecting “respectable” white communities from “lawless” Black ones. Police responded aggressively to the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, employing the same heavy-handed methods against peaceful protesters in Selma, Ala., and rioters in Los Angeles. Civil rights legislation ended Jim Crow but did not reform policing. Excessive force complaints by minorities against officers continued, although they rarely led to criminal charges being filed.

Occasionally, racist behavior became so blatant that the authorities were compelled to act. On March 3, 1991, four white Los Angeles police officers tasered and severely beat motorist Rodney King as approximately two dozen others watched. Unbeknownst to any of them, a man on a nearby balcony filmed the episode. The video evidence helped convict two officers on federal charges. The episode foreshadowed the era of the cell phone camera, which would make police misconduct harder to hide.

The institutional racism prevalent in many police forces does not constitute white supremacy per se, but it creates an environment conducive to extremist recruitment. The increase in the number of white supremacist groups and their membership over the past two decades has been thoroughly documented. As white supremacy spread, concern over extremist groups recruiting officers increased. A 2006 FBI report warned of white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement and the 2015 Counterterrorism Policy Directive and Policy Guide reiterated the warning, “white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.” 

No one knows precisely how many officers belong to extremist organizations. The 2020 Brennan Center report found alleged connections between law enforcement officials and white supremacist groups or “far-right militant activities” in at least 14 states. It also uncovered dozens of reports of racist behavior by officers around the country.

Extremist groups keep their membership rolls secret. However, a leaked database from the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government paramilitary group with racist overtones, revealed a membership of 25,000, two-thirds of whom had a military or law enforcement background and 10 percent of whom were active duty. Since the Oath Keepers intentionally recruit military, law enforcement and first responders they may have a higher percentage of police in their ranks than do other groups. However, they are not the only extremist organizations with law enforcement members. In 2019, an officer in East Hampton, Conn., was investigated for membership in the Proud Boys, yet the police chief declared that membership in that hate group did not violate department policy.

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The many allegations of racist behavior by police suggest that for every officer who joins an extremist group, several others may sympathize with a least some elements of white supremacist ideology. That sympathy was on display in Kenosha, Wis., last August in a video appearing to show officers welcoming armed militiamen who came to “help” them protect property and counter a Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally. Following the Jan. 6 insurrection, two Capitol Police officers were suspended for appearing to welcome rioters into the building. Several other officers are under investigation. 

While the majority of law enforcement members do not engage in racist behavior, let alone belong to white supremacist groups, the fact that any of them do is cause for serious concern. Greater efforts must be made to remove these officers and screen recruits. Police departments that do not have explicit policies prohibiting membership in extremist groups need to create them. Even when such policies exist, identifying offenders is hindered by the “blue wall of silence” and police unions that often protect members at all costs. Only a change in institutional police culture can overcome those barriers to combating racist behavior.

While the Pentagon can confront extremism systemically, law enforcement must tackle it one agency at a time. 

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history and DePaul University and author of "Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat."