Hundreds of current and former police officers and other law enforcement personnel are members of “Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups” on Facebook, according to an investigation by the U.S. Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal News posted on Friday.
Reveal’s data is from prior to mid-2018, when Facebook removed a function that allowed downloading of membership lists from groups. Reveal wrote it created two separate lists of “members of extremist groups and members of police groups,” then compared them to find 14,000 cross-matches. Reveal further checked to see which of those accounts belonged to individuals with a verifiable history of employment in law enforcement (as opposed to people with personal ties to or an interest in the profession), finding “almost 400 users were indeed either currently employed as police officers, sheriffs or prison guards or had once worked in law enforcement.”
Reveal wrote that some 150 of the officers in question were involved with “violent anti-government groups”:
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 have opened investigations after Reveal informed them of its findings, the site added, “at least one officer being fired for violating department policies.”
Examples described by Reveal included guard Geoffery Crosby of the Louisiana State Penitentiary (popularly known as Angola), who was a member of 56 extremist groups including one titled “BAN THE NAACP,” and detective James “J.T.” Thomas of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston, who was a member of a closed group titled “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.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office fired Thomas in February, citing violations of an employee code of conduct that prohibits behavior that could cause “undue embarrassment or damage the reputation of, or erode the public’s confidence in,” the department. (Thomas insisted in a review hearing that he was not aware he was a member of the group and that the fried chicken meme he posted was not racist, according to Reveal.)
While police departments usually keep disciplinary records and other information related to misconduct claims under wrap, Reveal added, they did manage to tie two of the officers in question to alleged wrongdoing. One was a Madison County Sheriff’s Department deputy and “White Lives Matter” group member involved in an ACLU lawsuit claiming racism and discriminatory policing, and who has been accused of punching a handcuffed black man and admitted to using racial slurs on the job. Another Chicago police lieutenant who had posted extreme content on Facebook and was a member of an Islamophobic group had 70 allegations of misconduct.
Facebook has long had a well-known extremism problem, ranging from a deluge of far-right and white supremacist groups and allegations it helped connect ISIS sympathizers to accusations of complicity in the Myanmar genocide. One of the most infamous incidents occurred earlier this year, when the murder of 51 people and wounding of scores of others at two mosques in New Zealand was live-streamed on the site.
The platform has taken action against some of the worst offenders with periodic waves of bans, including a recent policy change to prohibit white “nationalism” and white separatism. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recently announced pivot to privacy includes an emphasis on the kind of closed, private groups that are sometimes used as extremist echo chambers.
As the Verge noted, that shift leaves open the possibility that groups like the ones featured in the Reveal report will be able to fly further under the radar, with less visibility and thus PR headaches for Facebook. Reveal found that some 120 of the current or retired officers were “posting in [closed] groups or commenting in support of others,” and that this content tended to be more extreme than in the other groups. For example, six officers were a member of a group called “Anti-SJW Pinochet’s Helicopter Pilot Academy,” a reference to the Chilean dictator’s practice of murdering dissidents by throwing them out of helicopters flying over bodies of water. That group frequently contained racist and anti-Semitic posts, according to Reveal.