When keepers of the peace harbor hate

Why We Wrote This

To root out hate, you first have to identify it. Technology has helped to reveal a thread of racism running through some U.S. police forces. That’s the first step. Now what?

Matt Rourke/AP
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, July 18, 2019. The Philadelphia Police Department is suspending 17 police officers with an intent to fire 13, following an investigation into offensive and sometimes threatening Facebook posts. Mr. Ross resigned Aug. 20 amid an unrelated lawsuit over alleged sexual harassment and gender and racial discrimination against the department.

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In the past, when a law enforcement officer shared a racist comment or joke, it typically stayed in the room. Today, as technology mediates an ever-increasing portion of our social lives, such remarks can become matters of public debate years after they’ve been expressed.

In recent months, a series of reports has revealed thousands of instances of police sharing racist, xenophobic, and white supremacist imagery and memes on Facebook. Most cops are not racist, says Heather Taylor, an African American night watch homicide sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “But if you think that there are no white supremacists, you’re definitely wrong. You’re definitely wrong.”

The best way to prevent white supremacists from wearing the badge, says Sergeant Taylor, is not to hire them in the first place. “The prescription is better screening and hiring,” she says. “We can’t hold on to people just because they run the fastest, they shoot the best, they meet all of these criteria that are important law-enforcement-wise, but when it comes to being moral and ethically sound, we can’t pass these people through our academies.”

If you ask Heather Taylor, an African American night watch homicide sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, if some of her co-workers are white supremacists, she will respond with an unequivocal yes.

Most cops are not racist, she says, “But if you think that there are no white supremacists, you’re definitely wrong. You’re definitely wrong.”

She notes that there are currently six pending investigations for racial discrimination in the SLMPD, and that one case was recently resolved with a $1.1 million settlement. “We are in the news every other week,” she says.

St. Louis’ police department is hardly alone in struggling with racism in its ranks. What is relatively new, however, are ways to expose officers who may be undermining public trust in law enforcement.

A series of reports from The Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this year found active-duty police officers posting racist memes on Facebook, prompting more than 50 police departments across the United States to take action. In July, ProPublica uncovered a group of 9,500 current and retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers posting xenophobic and white supremacist imagery on Facebook. The Plain View Project, established by a group of Philadelphia attorneys in 2016, has cataloged more than 5,000 Facebook posts and comments by police officers in eight cities that include racist imagery and encourage violence against ethnic minorities.

In June, Sergeant Taylor and the Ethical Society of Police demanded the immediate dismissal of St. Louis police officers exposed by the Plain View Project. The officers were found to have made Facebook posts that traffic in racist stereotypes, promote the Confederate battle flag, compare Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan, joke about extrajudicial executions, and vilify Muslims.

St. Louis police officers had posted these inflammatory messages publicly on Facebook between 2013 and 2017, but they remained unnoticed until the Plain View Project posted them in its online database in June. 

In the past, when someone shared a racist comment or joke with a friend, colleague, or family member, it typically stayed in the room. Today, as technology mediates an ever-increasing portion of our social lives, such remarks can become matters of public debate years after they’ve been expressed.

And when these remarks resurface, sometimes years later, they force two questions central to one of the biggest civil rights debates of our time: To what extent does white supremacy find a home in American policing? And how can it be best addressed?

To some, those questions presume too sweeping an indictment of the force.

“Let’s put aside the notion that there’s rampant racism in law enforcement,” says Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the union representing St. Louis Metro Police. “That’s a false narrative.”

Mr. Roorda, who worked as a police officer for 17 years and is the author of the 2016 book “The War on Police: How the Ferguson Effect Is Making America Unsafe,” points out that many of the posts amassed by the Plain View Project are just variations on the logo of the Punisher, a Marvel Comics character. Many others express opinions held by a wide swath of Americans, he says.

“I challenge you to find any profession with less occurrence of racist posts,” says Mr. Roorda. “We expect to be held to a higher standard. What we can’t handle is being held to an impossible standard.”

“[The Ethical Society] has a history of addressing racial inequality,” he says, “but in the last few years their president [Sergeant Taylor] has been radicalized.” 

Prosecutors’ role

To Vida Johnson, a Georgetown University law professor and a criminal defense attorney, the job of dealing with police with white supremacist beliefs is best handled outside the department.

One potential solution, Professor Johnson argued in an article in the Lewis & Clark Law Review in April, is for jurists to expand their enforcement of the Brady doctrine, a pretrial discovery rule that prosecutors must disclose to the defense any material exculpatory evidence, and the related Giglio doctrine, which requires disclosure of any such evidence that could be used to impeach the credibility of prosecution witnesses, including police officers.

“There is no doubt,” Professor Johnson wrote, “that membership in a hate group or ascribing to racist beliefs would be fodder for cross-examination of an officer and useful to the defense.”

Having an outside group perform these background checks would help relieve police departments of the burden of policing themselves, says Professor Johnson. “Because of the ‘blue wall of silence,’ it’s really hard to expose these officers, because officers have to rely on one another,” she says.

Professor Johnson argues that prosecutors are well placed to help screen police officers for racist beliefs and affiliations with white supremacist groups. “If a prosecutor’s office saw it as their role to really look into their witnesses carefully, and particularly police officers who represent the government, they would be making sure these checks were done,” she says.

“I think that’s just the culture of police departments,” says Professor Johnson. “And until we change that it’s going to be hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys.”

Confronting history

White supremacy and American law enforcement share a long history together. The earliest forms of organized policing were slave patrols, and for much of U.S. history, through slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, police have played a key role in upholding a racist social order. And the problem didn’t vanish at the end of the 20th century; in 2006, the FBI sounded the alarm that so-called ghost skins – members of neo-Nazi or other hate groups posing as members of civilized society – had joined police departments across the United States. 

“White supremacist groups in the 1980s and 1990s started promoting a strategy they refer to as infiltration,” says Pete Simi, a sociologist who studies domestic terror at Chapman University in Orange, California. 

“We have no idea how effective or really widespread the strategy has actually been,” says Professor Simi, who co-wrote the 2010 book “American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate.”

For Sergeant Taylor, membership in a hate group is only one form that white supremacy can take.

“Sometimes it’s systemic,” she writes in a text message shortly after our interview. “Sometimes it’s as simple as racist words in an email group about President Obama being inferior, Facebook posts, an officer joining a group that hates Muslims, a supervisor refusing to allow someone in a specialized or coveted unit he or she supervises because of their hair, or denying an officer a promotion because they’re too ‘ethnic’ for them.” 

The best way to prevent white supremacists from wearing the badge, says Sergeant Taylor, is not to hire them in the first place. But she stresses that it is also important to screen police officers continuously throughout their career. 

“The prescription is better screening and hiring,” says Sergeant Taylor. “We can’t hold on to people just because they run the fastest, they shoot the best, they meet all of these criteria that are important law-enforcement-wise, but when it comes to being moral and ethically sound, we can’t pass these people through our academies.”

The Ethical Society advocates community policing – where officers aim to strengthen social bonds with the populations they police. Last year, the group expanded and began accepting members from the St. Louis County Police Department, which is directly responsible for policing the unincorporated areas of the county. That department also contracts with several municipalities in the county to serve as their police department.

In 2015, in response to younger black officers leaving the department, the Ethical Society founded a free “Pre-Academy” program for those considering a career in law enforcement. The program is open to people of all races and genders, ages 19 and older. 

All instructors are previous or current police academy instructors who take prospective recruits through a miniaturized version of a real academy. They meet twice weekly for three-hour classes on constitutional law, criminal investigation and report writing, fitness and nutrition, and a class on maintaining emotional wellness.

The program is aimed at ensuring that the demographic makeup of the police department reflects that of the city. According to the SLMPD’S 2018 Annual Report, two-thirds of the department’s commissioned officers are white, 30% are black, and about 3% are “other.” The city of St. Louis, by comparison, is 45% white and 49% black, according to U.S. census data.

Sergeant Taylor is proud of the program, but she recognizes its limits. “Everything we do with our 10-week academy with screening people and trying to double check their character, you’ll still have officers who will fail. That’s just human nature,” she says.

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