In recent months, as the Trump presidency brought a fresh spotlight to the current generation of white supremacists, many of these new dog-whistles have entered public consciousness. According to seven active and retired officers, though, police departments have been slow — if not unwilling — to purge white supremacists from their ranks, hesitant to challenge the plausible deniability maintained by those who don’t don a Klan robe or get caught using the n-word.
“They can’t fire you for what’s in your head if you don’t ever tell them what’s in your head,” said Hampton. “Even if other officers have a problem with it, it ends up being one officer’s word against another. Members of law enforcement have been in these groups for a long time, but it’s sort of gone underground.”
Because of this, Hampton and several active officers said, it’s likely impossible to ever know how many cops are members of white supremacist organizations or subscribe to that ideology.
One Baltimore police officer recalled a recent colleague with a small neck tattoo of two lightning bolts, a not-so-veiled reference to the Nazi SS unit. “Everyone knew what he was about,” the officer said. When his bosses learned that he was a member of a motorcycle group accused of promoting white supremacist beliefs, they moved him to units where his interaction with the public would be limited — tracking down illegal guns and working wiretaps, the officer said, noting that the colleague stayed with the department until retirement.
Evidence can sometimes be even more ambiguous, not so much proof of ideology but mere reason for suspicion. Lorne Ahrens, who was among the five Dallas officers killed by an anti-police extremist in 2016, had a small tattoo on his finger of an Iron Cross, an arm tattoo of a Crusader’s Shield, and a Facebook page cover photo of Thor’s Hammer — all iconography associated, though not exclusively, with white supremacist groups. (Lawyers representing Ahrens’ family didn’t respond to an email inquiring about the symbols.)
Departments have significant incentive to identify racist cops. In 2015, prosecutors in San Francisco dropped at least 13 cases — and opened a review into around 3,000 more — tied to 14 officers who had exchanged racist texts. In Washington, DC, this summer, a judge dismissed at least one case involving an officer who was photographed wearing a shirt bearing a pre-Christian cross adopted by some racist organizations.
While many police departments are quick to assign criminal liability to young black men who wear certain colors, hang out with certain people, or have any other suspected ties to street gangs, they have given far more leeway to cops with proven ties to racist groups. In 2013, two Anniston, Alabama, officers attended the national conference of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes as “a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by ‘European Americans.’” One of the officers gave a speech declaring that “kith and kin comes before illegal national mandates.”
When the SPLC, which acquired video footage of the event, informed Anniston city officials, they claimed that their hands were tied by constitutional freedoms. “We could not terminate an employee solely on his or her membership in a legal, lawfully formed, civic club or organization,” then-city manager Brian Johnson said. “I do not believe that someone could be terminated solely based on their private sector membership in a properly formed legal organization — as hateful as the KKK might be.”