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Report Details Threat of Connections Between White Supremacist Groups and Law Enforcement

On the eve of a major march in the U.S. capital against police violence and systemic racism, the Brennan Center for Justice published a startling report about the connections between white supremacist groups and police officers in the United States and the threat they pose.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy into Law Enforcement examines the “explicit racism” present in law enforcement and makes recommendations for U.S. federal, state, and local government to identify officers who hold these beliefs to ensure they do not harm the public or active investigations.

“Operating under color of law, [racist officers] put the lives and liberty of people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ people, and anti-racist activists at extreme risk, both through the violence they can mete out directly and by their failure to properly respond when those communities are victimized by other racist violent crime,” wrote report author Michael German, a Brennan Center fellow and former FBI agent who specialized in domestic terrorism. “Biased policing also tears at the fabric of American society by undermining public trust in equal justice and the rule of law.”

In the report, German detailed how policing in the early American colonies was focused on maintaining the racial social order and protecting property interests of whites. Since then, white supremacist and far-right militant groups have successfully infiltrated the ranks of law enforcement across the country—demonstrated by high-profile incidents like the Mississippi Burning case in the 1960s and the practice of creating “sundown towns.”

Other documented instances include the firing of Wilmington, North Carolina, police officers in June 2020 after a routine audit of their car camera recordings revealed conversations where the officers used racial epithets and discussed shooting Black people—including a Black police officer.

“One officer said that he could not wait for a declaration of martial law so they could go out and ‘slaughter’ Black people,” German wrote. “He also announced his intent to buy an assault rifle in preparation for a civil war that would ‘wipe ‘em off the [expletive] map.’”

The former officers said their conduct was not racist but a reaction to stress on the job after mass protests in response to the killing of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers.

In his research, German also found that police reforms following incidents of brutality or racist misconduct focus on addressing officers’ unconscious bias. But these reforms often do not address “explicit racism,” such as connections law enforcement has to far-right militant groups or racist activity on social media, and agencies are not doing enough to identify individuals within their own ranks who hold these views, German added.

For instance, most agencies lack policies that prohibit officers from affiliating with white supremacist groups. Without such policies, German explained, if officers associate with racists groups, agencies must rely on other policies for disciplinary action, such as “conduct detrimental to the department” or possibly violations of social media polices—and that’s if the officers are disciplined at all.

The threat from law enforcement connections to white supremacy and militant groups is not new. The FBI put together an intelligence assessment in 2006 that warned of the risk of white supremacist infiltration into law enforcement agencies and how it could impact Bureau investigations to jeopardize the safety of sources or personnel.

“Though the FBI redacted significant passages of the assessment before releasing it to the public, the document does not appear to address any of the potential harms these bigoted officers pose to communities of color they police or to society at large,” German explained. “Rather, it identifies the main problem as a risk to the integrity of FBI investigations and the security of its agents and informants.”

The FBI further acknowledged the threat in its 2015 counterterrorism policy, but did not provide an adequate remedy for identifying and removing personnel with connections to white supremacist or militant groups.

“Its proposed remedy is stunningly inadequate, however,” German wrote. “The guide simply instructs agents to use 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.”

To address these problems and threats, German provided several key recommendations in his report. For instance, he suggested that Congress direct the U.S. Department of Justice to examine law enforcement associations with white supremacist and other far-right militant groups to provide an understanding of the scale and scope of the problem. The department could then use that information to create a national strategy for U.S. attorneys and FBI offices to prioritize these investigations.

Additionally, German suggested creating a national hotline to report racist activity by law enforcement, require the FBI to survey its domestic terrorism investigations to document and report active links between these groups and law enforcement officials, and create a formal mitigation plan to handle officers who pose a public security threat or risk of harm to protected classes and communities.

“Trust in the police remains low among people of color, who are often victims of police violence and abuse and are disproportionately underserved as victims of crime,” German wrote. “The failure of law enforcement to adequately respond to racist violence and hate crimes or properly police white supremacist riots in cities across the United States over the last several years has left many Americans concerned that bias in law enforcement is pervasive.”