To Protect and Slur:
Inside hate groups on Facebook, police officers trade racist memes, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia Part One
By Will Carless and Michael Corey
Hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the United States are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook, a Reveal investigation has found.
These cops have worked at every level of American law enforcement, from tiny, rural sheriff’s departments to the largest agencies in the country, such as the Los Angeles and New York police departments. They work in jails and schools and airports, on boats and trains and in patrol cars. And, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting discovered, they also read and contribute to groups such as “White Lives Matter” and “DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER.”
The groups cover a range of extremist ideologies. Some present themselves publicly as being dedicated to benign historical discussion of the Confederacy, but are replete with racism inside. Some trade in anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant memes. Some are openly Islamophobic. And almost 150 of the officers we found are involved with violent anti-government groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
More than 50 departments launched internal investigations after being presented with our findings, in some cases saying they would examine officers’ past conduct to see if their online activity mirrored their policing in real life. And some departments have taken action, with at least one officer being fired for violating department policies.
U.S. law enforcement agencies, many of which have deeply troubled histories of discrimination, have long been accused of connections between officers and extremist groups. At the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, marchers flew a “Blue Lives Matter” flag alongside anti-Semitic and white supremacist messages. In Portland, Oregon, police officers were found to have been texting with a far-right group that regularly hosts white supremacists and white nationalists at its rallies. A classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from April 2015, obtained by The Intercept, warned that white supremacists and other far-right groups had infiltrated American law enforcement.
It can be difficult to determine how deep or widespread these connections run. Researchers recently found numerous examples of police officers posting violent and racist content on their public Facebook pages. Reveal’s investigation shows for the first time that officers in agencies across the country have actively joined private hate groups, participating in the spread of extremism on Facebook.
Most of the hateful Facebook groups these cops frequent are closed, meaning only members are allowed to see content posted by other members. Reveal joined dozens of these groups and verified the identities of almost 400 current and retired law enforcement officials who are members.
One guard at the Angola prison in Louisiana, Geoffery Crosby, was a member of 56 extremist groups, including 45 Confederate groups and one called “BAN THE NAACP.”
A detective at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston, James “J.T.” Thomas, was a member of the closed Facebook group “The White Privilege Club.”
The group contains hundreds of hateful, racist and anti-Semitic posts; links to interviews with white supremacists such as Richard Spencer; and invites to events such as the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Users regularly post memes featuring Pepe the Frog, the alt-right mascot, with captions such as, “white people, do something.” And there are explicitly racist jokes, such as one with a photo of fried chicken and grape soda with the caption, “Mom packed me a niggable for school.”
Thomas once posted the logo for the Black College Football Hall of Fame inside the group with a simple caption: “Seriously. Why?” Soon after, he posted a meme about an elderly African American woman confusedly responding to a reporter’s question by naming a fried chicken restaurant.
After being presented with Thomas’ postings on Facebook, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office fired him in February for violating a number of employee conduct policies.
“These policies state that ‘an employee’s actions must never bring the HCSO into disrepute, nor should conduct be detrimental to the HCSO’s efficient operation. … Personnel who, through their use of social media, cause undue embarrassment or damage the reputation of, or erode the public’s confidence in, the HCSO shall be deemed to have violated this policy and shall be subject to counseling and/or discipline,” the department said in an email.
In a hearing to appeal his firing, Thomas said he didn’t realize he was a member of the closed group and defended his behavior. “If you remove the black female out of the picture, what’s racist about it?” he said. The Harris County Sheriff’s Civil Service Commission upheld his firing.
Lonnie Allen Brown of the Kingsville Police Department in Texas, a member of three Islamophobic groups, posted a photo of a young black man with a pistol to his head with the header, “If Black lives really mattered …. They’d stop shooting each other!” He also posted an image that read: “Islam. A cult of oppression, rape, pedophilia and murder cannot be reasoned with!” Neither he nor his department returned calls for comment.
Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University who has studied extremist groups for more than 20 years, said biased views like those expressed in these Facebook groups inevitably influence an individual’s decision-making process.
“The perceptions we have about the world at large drive the decisions we make,” Simi said. “To think that people could completely separate these extremist right-wing views from their actions just isn’t consistent with what we know about the decision-making process.”
While Facebook vows that it prioritizes meaningful content, its algorithms also appear to play a role in strengthening biases. The more extreme groups we joined, the more Facebook suggested new – and often even more troubling – groups to join or pages to like. It was easy to see how users, including police officers, could be increasingly radicalized by what they saw on their news feed.
What’s harder to see is how these views affected their policing offline.