Report Connects Hundreds of Law Enforcement Officers To Online Hate Groups
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / June 18, 2019
An investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found numerous police officers post and engage with racist memes, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia as members of Facebook hate groups.
Speaker 1: 00:00 Law Enforcement and racism have a long history, but until recent years that long history has been in the shadow of denial, data is changing that bringing disturbing trends into the light of reality. A new report from reveal at the Center for investigative reporting shows law enforcement officials across the country are participating in private hate groups on social media. How prevalent is the problem? Joining me is will carless who co authored the report. We'll thanks for joining us. Thanks for having me. One sociologist you spoke with said white supremacist and other extremist have been working to infiltrate law enforcement agencies and even military. Can you talk to me about the history between law enforcement and racism?
Speaker 2: 00:42 Absolutely. There is a long history of discrimination in American policing going right back to the early days and the very birth of police departments, particularly in the south that grew out of a slave patrols. Now, right up until a few years ago, the FBI was actually investigating the extent to which white supremacist organizations have infiltrated, uh, police departments. And we've also seen numerous cases where departments have been exposed for having members, having sort of secret clubs inside them that were racist in nature, as well as having individuals who are members of groups like the KKK in the area and brotherhoods. So there's certainly been a long and very, very troubling history there. Would you characterize,
Speaker 1: 01:28 you found in your reporting, uh, you know, as a small percentage of officers involved in this? Or is this an indication of of the culture in law enforcement?
Speaker 2: 01:37 I definitely say it's the latter. I mean, we've had a few people who come back to us and said, come on, look, 400 really out of out of however many hundreds of thousands of police officers. I mean, that's a drop in the ocean. And that's, you know, that's, that's not a fair point. And the reason is this, we took a look specifically, we built a mechanism whereby we could sort of get a glimpse at the way that some people feel and we got a sort of a sample. We didn't even look at all the people on our list. We got 14,000 hits of people who were members of at least one police group on Facebook or at least one extremist group on Facebook suggesting that that person could well be a law enforcement officer. We looked into about 2000 of those and we found about 400 police officers. If we had the time, if we had the resources, we could have looked at all 14,000 of them and I'm sure we would have found hundreds if not thousands more police officers. So I think what we've got is an interesting glimpse of a very troubling culture as opposed to um, you know, sort of an all encompassing measure of how bad this problem is.
Speaker 1: 02:43 Were any of the officers involved in these hate groups from San Diego agencies or, or Southern California?
Speaker 2: 02:49 I just did a quick search through and I did find a guy, I'm not going to name him, he's retired. Um, I, I'd want to do a bit more, um, sort of digging into him. But, uh, he retired. His Facebook profile says he's retired s SDPD and he's now involved with the San Diego oath keepers group on Facebook. So we found a lot of these retired police officers who are members of these anti government militia groups and indeed that story that we're going to be publishing probably this week. I'm taking a look at another sort of angle of the, of the groups that we found. And you also found a officer's and Los Angeles too, right? That's right. We found, we found a couple of offices in, in, in La, um, one um, retired and one that we're still working to confirm whether he is, uh, an active duty or kind of what's happened to him.
Speaker 2: 03:37 His Facebook profile has since disappeared since we informed the department about him. I mean, part of this, part of the tricky mission of this, of this whole project was, okay, so we have a Facebook page that's in somebody whose name we have a photo of somebody, but unless we have a photo of them in uniform or unless they're saying on their Facebook page, I am a police officer. You've got to go through other steps to confirm whether or not they're police officers. And so those 400 of the people that we were able to confirm, but we have a number of other people who, you know, they're, they're saying troubling stuff. We know they're members of traveling groups, but we're still working to confirm whether or not they are either active duty or did, did once work at a police department. Okay. So have you had a chance to um, bring this information to those police departments yet?
Speaker 2: 04:22 I have. So we, we spent, or I spent several weeks at the end of last year and the beginning of this year writing letters to and emailing them out to police chiefs, to sheriffs, um, all across the nation, basically saying in your specific instance, I know of this officer name, his name is x. He has done, why here are screenshots of him doing, uh, what he's done on Facebook. Here are the groups that he's a member of. Um, and, you know, do, would you care to respond? So, absolutely. We've, we've made departments across the country aware of what we found and what, how did they respond? Really cross the gamut. I mean, I had some, I've had everything from police chiefs calling me up the moment they got the email and saying, wow, this is really troubling. I want to know more about this. I'm launching an internal affairs investigation and we're going to look into this really deeply to literally being screamed at by by police chiefs and being told to mind my own business and it's none of my business.
Speaker 2: 05:22 And um, and uh, I should just go away. So, and, and in between, I will say that we do know of about 50 departments, at least 50 departments that launched internal affairs investigations. Unfortunately, because of the secretive nature of these investigations, we don't know in most cases what happened as a result of that. So I'm still waiting to find out. I have a feeling that the, the, the, the shoe is gonna drop on a few more offices. We know of at least one officer who, who has been fired as a result of what we found. And I know of a few others that the departments are taking very seriously and doing investigations into, and you actually do name a few of law enforcement who are members of these hate groups in your story and what kinds of things are they posting on these pages and, and what are these hate groups called?
Speaker 2: 06:07 The hate groups fall into various different categories. You've got sort of a confederate groups, which um, a lot of them argue that that really just history, griots. But once you get inside and start looking at what these guys are talking about, it's actually just a lot of racist, a lot of racist stuff. Um, you know, just kind of stereotypical discriminatory story, discriminatory stuff against African Americans against Muslims. We have groups that are committed to Islamophobia, things like death to Islam. Undercover is one of the groups. Uh, we have, we have groups that are connected to the men's rights movement, the mg t, t, O, w, which is men going their own way, which is a, a misogynist group that I essentially blames women for all the ills in the world when men get together and sort of write about how awful women are. So those, those are the main categories.
Speaker 2: 06:57 And then of course we have the, the anti government militia groups, the oath keeper groups. Um, uh, the 3% is these are groups that have in the past proven really fertile ground for, um, for domestic terrorism, domestic terrorist. We had at least two cases in the last 15 months of members of militias who were planning to, uh, in one instance bomb a Somali community in Kansas. And in another instance who, who actually bombed a, uh, a mosque up in Minnesota. So the whole gamut of, of, of hate sort of hate groups are, are covered in this report. Can you talk to me about why this is also concerning?
Speaker 2: 07:37 Well, to go back to the sociologists that you mentioned earlier, I had a very interesting conversation with him. And one of the things he said is, look, I mean there is, there is no, uh, there is no subtracting. Um, one's sort of interests and one's preconceptions and biases from the actions that one takes. And that's true for all of us. I mean, we all make decisions every day. Now police officers make decisions, maybe not every day, but can make decisions about whether somebody is going to live or is going to die. And police officers have immense responsibility as a essentially, you know, holding people's lives in their hands. And so when you, when you get a glimpse at what these police officers are interested in, the sort of groups that they frequent in their spare time and some of the things that are going on in there and some of those messages that are being spread, I think that should concern every American citizen.
Speaker 2: 08:30 That there are police officers who, you know, who trade in in racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and Islamophobia. I think it's, it's, it's extremely disturbing that the people, the very people who, uh, have the, the right to take somebody's life, um, are involved in, in, in groups that, that denigrate members of our society. I think it should worry everyone. And did you find a pattern of policing from the officer's in these groups? So that's, that's a huge question and I wish I could say that we were able to take what we found and the sort of red flags that we found and then go and compare it against people's everyday sort of IRL in real life police work. The reality is that when you find an office or that concerns you, when you go to a police department and you say, I'd like to know this person's record.
Speaker 2: 09:19 You can't, in most cases you can't get any information about that individual. Um, police records are kept totally confidential and most of the country, um, you can't find out whether people who've been involved in, for example, shootings or discriminatory policing. It's extremely difficult to find that stuff. Now, having said that, in a couple of instances we did, you know, we found a guy in, in Mississippi for example, who's a member of a racist Facebook group and we found a guy, for example, a sheriff's deputy in Mississippi who's a member of a Facebook group called white lives matter. Uh, he's also a member of a department that's being sued for decades of, uh, alleged systematic racism through the department. So there are some places where it lines up, but you know, it's just so secretive you can't find out information about police officers. So it was very hard to take what we saw on Facebook and see how it's actually, or whether it's actually impacting people's lives on the streets.
Speaker 2: 10:16 Could some of the officers you found on these hate group pages have been working undercover? They could if they were. They haven't told me that. I haven't had any instances where an officer has come back and said, I've got a legitimate reason to be in this, you know, closed, racist, hateful Facebook group. I have had people come back and say, I didn't know I was in there. I had a couple of people came back and claimed that they had been hacked and that they, you know, someone else had joined the group on their behalf, but I haven't heard the undercover excuse back yet. Um, and I will say that we have given, especially everybody who we named in our story, uh, we've given ample opportunity to get back to us. I mentioned those letters that I sent out. We followed that up with calls and emails and Facebook messages to the individuals involved and to their departments.
Speaker 2: 11:06 Um, so, you know, if somebody comes back at this late stage and says, Hey, I was in this group for, for, you know, for this undercover reason, I'd like to know why they didn't tell me that weeks or if not months ago. What motivated you to look into this? So basically my editors came to me over about a year and a half ago and said, we'd like to do something on extremists that connections between extremist groups and police officers. And I sort of said, well, yeah, it doesn't everybody. I mean, that's, that's an important story about how do we do it. And what I really didn't want to do, what Michael Corey and I really didn't want to do was to write a sort of a retrospective piece to kind of say, well, here's a lawsuit that's been brought about, uh, a group of officers that are involved in this racist group. What we wanted to do was we wanted to proactively go and pinpoint people and ultimately by, by I'm getting this information from Facebook and through months and months of research, I think we were able to do that.
Speaker 2: 12:01 We were able to point at, um, we were able to point at at least sort of paint, get red flags for offices that should be looked at closer. And so the, the driving force there was to really be proactive and not retroactive and to, um, try and take a look. I mean, our latest show on reveal was all about how a white supremacy, um, is sort of all around us and how it's so integral to the American experience that, that we live in this society, whether it's so much ingrained injustice and ingrained unfairness and discrimination. And so we wanted to in a little way, chip away at that and sort of keep people aware of it and say, Hey, look, you know, this is something that, that communities, um, that individuals in our society have to face as a reality every single day. And I'm sorry if it brings sort of a police departments into district disrepute or if it costs doubt on, on police departments. But that's the reality that, that, that our neighbors and friends face. And, and I think we've done a little bit to sort of show that, that, that this is a real problem and it may continues to be a real problem. I've been speaking with will, Carla's from reveal at the Center for investigative reporting will thank you very much. Thanks very much.