In September, President Joe Biden delivered a speech titled “The Battle for the Soul of the Nation,” a dire warning about the threat posed by MAGA Republicans, who cheer political violence and “look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6—brutally attacking law enforcement—not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but…as patriots.” The president rightly identified the entire MAGA project as a danger “to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice [and] to the rule of law.”
That speech came on the heels of the president’s announcement of his Safer America Plan, a crime-reduction initiative that would provide $13 billion to add 100,000 officers to local and state police forces. He also used the moment to indict MAGA right-wingers for their hypocrisy: “You’re either on the side of a mob or the side of the police. You can’t be pro–law enforcement and pro-insurrection.”
But neither of the president’s speeches acknowledged the fact that law enforcement formed a noteworthy contingent of the insurrectionist mob. At least 19 Capitol defendants are current or former police officers; a Los Angeles Times report pointed out that “dozens more were there but so far haven’t faced charges.” More than 80 Capitol rioters are veterans or active service members. If President Biden sincerely cares about the white supremacist “poison…running through our body politic,” as he put it in yet another speech, his administration had better get busy purging the strain that courses through the ranks of our police.
It would be the first time the government has endeavored to do so, despite plenty of studies finding that the issue is a major problem. Over 140 years after Reconstruction saw slave patrols reform as Southern police departments, a 2006 FBI report warned of a new tide of “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement.” Hate groups, the paper noted, have long found police departments to be fertile recruitment grounds, but there was now evidence of “self-initiated efforts by…those already within law enforcement ranks, to volunteer their professional resources to white supremacist causes.” Three years later, a Department of Homeland Security report predicted that the white backlash to a Black president might become “the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States”; the report was rescinded in the face of conservative outrage. By 2015, an internal FBI counterterrorism guide admitted that agency investigations of white supremacist and other domestic terrorist groups “often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
Evidence of these links keeps mounting. Six days after the “Soul of the Nation” address, the Anti-Defamation League announced that it had identified more than 370 current police officers and more than 100 active-duty military members on the Oath Keepers’ leaked membership rolls. Back in 2019, the Center for Investigative Reporting linked nearly 400 former and current “police officers, sheriffs or prison guards” from more than 150 departments to online groups with names such as “Ban the NAACP” and “The White Privilege Club.” A 2019 survey by Military Times found that one-third of all active-duty troops said that they had “personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months.”
The racist attitudes of off-duty and very online police persist on duty and IRL, where they pose real dangers. For two decades, from the early 1970s through 1993, a rumored Klansman, Jon Burge, commanded a Chicago police gang that tortured at least 118 Black men, extracting false confessions with cattle prods and electric shocks in a device they called the “nigger box.” In 2018, Kentucky police veteran Tim Shaw advised a new recruit to shoot Black teens caught smoking pot and to rape the kid’s parents. Five years after he was hired despite admitting he’d attended a Klan meeting, Little Rock, Ark., officer Josh Hastings murdered an unarmed Black 15-year-old boy. The 50-year presence within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department of racist gangs has cost the county $55 million in victim payouts.
And in early October, in response to a FOIA request, the FBI disclosed that one week after the Capitol insurrection, FBI deputy director Paul Abbate received an e-mail from an internal source warning that there is “a sizable percentage of the employee population that felt sympathetic to the group that stormed the Capitol.” The letter also indicated that its author had “spoken to multiple African American agents who have turned down asks to join SWAT because they do not trust that every member of their office’s SWAT team would protect them in an armed conflict.”
Just as the “bad apples” analogy downplays the systemic rot of racist policing, the “lone wolf” theory of white supremacists in law enforcement belies the institutional reality. Departments with officers bearing “sympathy towards the ideologies of extremism leave us all compromised,” writes Georgetown University law professor Vida B. Johnson. “If police departments are complicit in the attack on truth and democracy, they cannot be trusted to protect the general public.”
Eight months after the Capitol insurrection, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on the white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement. Congressman Jamie Raskin, who led the proceedings, told USA Today at the time that “a street alliance among right-wing paramilitary forces, law enforcement and demagogic politicians has been a hallmark of fascism for a century.” And yet there is still no national plan to address what Raskin termed “a warning sign of danger for our democracy.” What might help bring about that strategy is pressure from above. Biden has said that Trump’s 2017 defense of white nationalists at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally is what motivated him to again run for president. “It was a wake-up call for us as a country and for me, a call to action,” Biden said in 2020.
Cops with racial animus toward Black folks are more likely to harm Black children, a 2014 UCLA study found. A 2017 study found that “white police officers are nine times as likely as a white nonpolice citizen to think that Black people are more violent than white people.” And most grimly, Black folks are more than three times as likely to be killed by police as white people.
There is no louder wake-up call than this. I hope the president is listening.