The Epidemic of White Supremacist Police
The Washington Post, the Root, and others have recently written about a District of Columbia police officer who was seen in D.C. Superior Court wearing a t-shirt with a white supremacist symbol and the grim reaper holding a rifle and police badge. Under the ugly image of death is the caption “let me see that waistband jo” — understood to be a reference to “jump outs,” a highly controversial police practice, or “mocking a slang expression used by some black youths” in the neighborhoods where the officer works. This particular officer’s shirt states the precinct in which he works: the 7th District, an area of the city where the residents are primarily African American.
It seems unlikely this officer made this shirt just for himself. Many more officers may own it but have the sense not to wear it to court. Other officers may have seen it but failed to report it. An internal investigation into the matter is now underway.
This is not only terrifying to people of color in the District of Columbia but it should send chills down the backs of the top police brass around the country. The officer’s outward expression of racial animus is hardly an isolated incident, and is reflective of an increasingly troubling pattern within the D.C. police department and across the country. It is also a problem that could have been avoided.
For years national law enforcement agencies have been sounding the alarmabout white supremacists in their midst. In 2006, the F.B.I. warned of white supremacists attempting to enter into police departments and recruit police officers. In 2009, it was the Department of Homeland Security that was letting the public and local law enforcement know of the threat to national security posed by white supremacists after the election of the first black president. It is no secret that white supremacist groups are actively recruiting college students and former members of the military — qualifications necessary to become a police officer in D.C.
In the time that has passed since the first of these now-repeated warnings, there has been an alarming number of police officers reported to be members of hate groups or expressing racist vitriol in texts, emails, and on social media. In 2014, three police officers of a 13-member all-white police department were discovered to be members of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Fruitland Park, Florida. These men were discovered because they were trying to recruit other officers to join them. In 2015, a lieutenant in the Anniston County Police Department in Alabama was fired for being a member of the League of the South, a southern hate group. (Another lieutenant was also a member but retired once his affiliation became publicized.) The membership was no secret to the department when the fired lieutenant was first hired, and in fact was “the subject of friendly jokes.” It was only once a story about his membership was highlighted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch that he was eventually fired. A Lake Arthur, Louisiana police officer was fired after a photo of him surfaced on Facebook giving a Nazi salute next to a man in a white hood in 2015. Just last week, a different Louisiana police officer posted a depiction of a mother drowning her daughter in a bathtub with the caption: “when your daughter’s first crush is a little negro boy.”
Police with vile racist beliefs are not limited to the Deep South, as the recent incident in D.C. has shown. In 2016, an officer with the Philadelphia Police Department was found to have a white supremacist tattoo on his forearm. Four San Francisco police officers sent racist text messages to one another. A police officer in Metro Detroit called black citizens protesting at a rally “monkeys.” A police officer in the Price Police Department in Utah used the “n” word in a Facebook post. NYPD Detective Gregory Gordon made a Facebook comment in which he called New York Mayor Bill Deblasio’s black wife a “former crack addict.” The same officer also said that black people should stop complaining and “get over” slavery.
Bigoted police officers are not confined to the streets; some high-ranking officers have been responsible for spreading their appalling views throughout their departments. In 2015, the Clatskanie Chief of Police in Oregon resigned after being accused of calling black people “monkeys” in response to a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. A Pennsylvania police chief used the “n” word in an email that suggested blacks in a particular neighborhood were illiterate. A police chief in New Jersey sent an email calling for racial profiling of blacks in white neighborhood. The Howard County Sheriff in Maryland often referred to black people as “n — — -rs” and called a Jewish county executive a “Jew-boy.” A 2017 report about the Chicago Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice found that dozens of officers, including supervisors, made racist remarks and disparaging comments about African Americans, Muslims, and other minority groups.
As hate group membership rises across the country, police departments need to do more to ensure that people who hold these beliefs are not on the force. Personality testing has been used during hiring by law enforcement for years, but departments must employ bias testing, as well, and ramp up their in-service anti-bias training. Monitoring of work emails and texts by employers is legal and common practice — and police departments need to be doing it. Social media checks are routinely done in the private sector; the same needs to be done in law enforcement. And the focus cannot simply be on new hires; these measures are also needed for those officers already on the force.
Public opinion of police in American is low: one-third of white Americans do not express a favorable opinion of police, while the number is even lower when limited to African Americans. Further, according to Cato Institute survey, “Black (31%) and Hispanic (42%) Americans are far less likely than white Americans (64%) to be highly confident their local police departments treat all racial groups equally.” This tension threatens not only the reputation and functionality of the criminal justice system, but also the physical safety of certain communities and the very fabric of our country. Without swift action by state and federal law enforcement to address this clear and present danger, things will only get worse.