Inside the New Push to Expose America’s White Supremacist Cops
by Kelly Weill
Fourteen years ago, the FBI documented racist infiltration of law enforcement in America. Now members of Congress want the full story.
In 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigation knew America’s police forces had a white-supremacist problem. But the internal report the agency compiled that year was so heavily redacted that almost no one knows what it contained.
Now, amid national protests over police brutality against Black Americans and new scrutiny of racist cops, lawmakers are pushing for the report’s full release.
A nearly blank version of the October 2006 report, titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement,” has circled the internet for years, after it was released in a Freedom of Information request. The few unredacted lines are worrying: In addition to warning of historic attempts by groups like the Ku Klux Klan to gain employment with police, it refers to white-supremacist leaders’ “recent rhetoric” calling on followers to infiltrate police forces.
As the country grapples with racist policing—both overt and in the form of unconscious but often deadly biases—28 members of Congress are calling on the FBI and Justice Department to release the full, unredacted document, which some experts say is more relevant than ever.
“This report is more than 14 years old,” Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA), who spearheaded the effort last week, told The Daily Beast. “God knows where these officers that were looked at back then are in the rank and file of our police departments.”
The document is an overview of white-supremacist infiltration as of August 2006. Some of its broad observations are unredacted: The document warns that extremists in police forces can gain worrying access to intelligence, and can use their positions to target elected officials or vulnerable populations. But many of the potentially most worrying sections are obscured, including information on “organized intent to infiltrate law enforcement” and “strategic infiltration and recruitment campaigns.”
Torres’ letter to the FBI and DOJ calls for the full document, as well as an updated report. The FBI declined to comment and DOJ did not immediately return a request for comment.
Samuel Jones, professor of law at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago who has studied the 2006 memo extensively, said he thinks the document is even more relevant today than when it was written.
“I think that with the advancements in technology, many of these organizations have become more powerful,” he told The Daily Beast. “They have been allowed to gain employment within our criminal justice system as prosecutors, as police officers, as investigators, as medical examiners, as judges, according to their own literature.”
Multiple police and correctional officers have been outed as members of far-right groups in recent years, including a Connecticut police officer revealed as a Proud Boy, nearly a quarter of a small Florida police force revealed as KKK members, and a member of an Alabama force revealed as a member of a neo-Confederate group.
Infiltration of law enforcement by hardened extremists has grown worse since 2006, according to Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security senior analyst who released a prophetic—and overlooked—2009 report about the risk of far-right violence. Still, he noted that those infiltrating organizations are less often explicit anti-Black racists like members of the KKK and more often far-right anti-government groups that claim not to be purveyors of hate.
“We have anti-government groups now that are solely focused on law enforcement recruitment, like the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs Peace Officers association, also three-percenter militias,” Johnson said. “There’s more infiltration by those types of groups than from actual white supremacists. But those groups are also hate groups to me because they hate Muslims. They hate immigrants. So they’re also a concern. The problem, if you look at extremist infiltration, has gotten 10 times worse than when that report was written in 2006, and it’s more widespread.”
Those groups’ members frequently overlap with other extremist groups, and have been involved in a spectrum of menacing activities, from patrolling while heavily armed at Black Lives Matter rallies (anti-racistly, they claim), to bombing a mosque and a women’s health clinic. But because the groups are less blatant than, say, neo-Nazis who wear swastika armbands, their presence in police forces is less likely to cause alarm, Johnson said, pointing to a 2019 report that highlighted militia members in law enforcement.
“Every single [police department] basically said it wasn’t a concern,” he said. “It was their First Amendment-protected speech. I countered at the time that, no, this is a problem because this is an insider threat.”
That blind spot hints at a broader problem of racism in police departments: Jones said white supremacist culture is so embedded in law enforcement that there’s no need for extremists to infiltrate—racism is already there.
“My position nowadays,” Jones said, “is that we do not have a white supremacist infiltration problem much as a white supremacist culture problem with respect to our law enforcement agencies.”
He pointed to harsh statistical divides in police treatment toward people of color. For example, a massively disproportionate number of vehicle searches by Chicago Police target Black and Hispanic people, he said, even though white people have been found to be more likely to be carrying contraband in those searches. (More recently, social-distancing arrests in New York hit people of color way harder than whites, albeit in a much smaller sample size.) “That’s an indication that the police have not really been trying to stop crime or to take contraband off the streets,” he said. “They’ve really been engaged in targeting people of color and principally men of color.” (Chicago Police have said they would investigate their pattern of racial disparities in traffic stops, but they are far from alone in being accused of such practices.)
Police also disproportionately shoot and kill Black people, in addition to other homicides in custody, like those of George Floyd and Eric Garner, who died after being violently restrained and telling police they could not breathe.
“We also see that even when Black officers join now, a lot of times, they can be just as violent as white officers,” Jones said, “because they have to prove that they have denounced any racial identity—that they have racial identity is subordinate to the blue identity, to the white supremacist culture—in order to survive.”
Despite the 2006 FBI report’s heightened relevance, Torres said she and her fellow lawmakers might face pushback in demanding the un-redacted report.
“Republicans have been very aggressive at denying that white supremacists are a growing problem in our country,” Torres said. “We also have a president who has expressed the same concern that there is no white supremacist problem here in the U.S.”