Race and White Supremacy in American Policing
Anita Muldoon could sense that this might be her last chance to make it as a cop. She was riding shotgun in a Minneapolis squad car in the fall of 1993 when her training officer offered a blunt assessment of her standing. “You’re not trusted,” he told her. “And you won’t be until you’re in a physical fight.”
To rectify this, he said, she’d need to “leak” someone, as in make them bleed. Muldoon felt her stomach drop. She had known she would stick out from her peers — a liberal woman embarking on a law-enforcement career in her mid-thirties. She just hadn’t understood all the reasons why. Since coming to the 3rd Precinct, she’d often heard the n-word from her colleagues. Now her training officer motioned toward a black man walking in their direction on the sidewalk.
“He doesn’t even need to have done anything,” he said. “I’ll back you up.”
The training officer angled the car curbside and glanced at her to see if she accepted his invitation. In response, Muldoon says she remained quiet, her body rigid with panic. The officer drove on, the silence between them so tense that she figured her career was over.
Soon after, Muldoon was informed she had failed field training. She sent a letter of resignation to then-Police Chief John Laux, writing that she had been shuttled between more than a half-dozen training officers in the 3rd Precinct, who asked about her sexuality, the color of her fiancé, and casually lobbed racist statements into the conversation. Just weeks before she had been asked to “leak” someone, she tells Rolling Stone, a different training officer had leapt from their squad car, grabbed hold of a young black male crossing the street and beat him. He justified his assault by telling Muldoon that he’d arrested the young man in the past.
She ran through her experiences of racism inside the department in her letter, and closed with a warning: “Having experienced the system from the inside, I fear for the future of this city.”
After the entire nation was rocked by the killing of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man murdered by a white cop in the same precinct where Muldoon had trained, her words look prophetic. She is speaking publicly for the first time, 27 years later, because Floyd’s needless death surfaced the racism she’d seen firsthand. “It is past time for white people and police to speak up about the racism they’ve witnessed,” she says today.
Racist strands in policing run deep in American history. “From the beginning there’s been negative relations between police and communities of color,” says Lorenzo Boyd, a police consultant and trainer, and vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven. “From slave patrols through the Civil War, Jim Crow period, the civil rights movement, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and on through the current Black Lives Matter protests.”
Two very different uprisings in the past year tell the story. Data from Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence website, lists more than 1,000 instances of police brutality at BLM protests since Floyd’s death. By comparison, this January, law enforcement left the Capitol underdefended against an almost uniformly white mob of Trump supporters that included avowed white supremacists, far-right extremists, neo-Confederates — and off-duty or retired cops and military. Members of the mob erected gallows on the National Mall, overran security, and set off to hang the vice president.
A plainer statement about who scares or angers American law enforcement couldn’t have been issued in a memo. Extremism researchers have been warning for years that a dangerous affinity has formed between American police, far-right extremists, and white supremacists. A classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from April 2015, first obtained by the Intercept, included the observation that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white-supremacist extremists, and sovereign-citizen extremists often have identified active links to law-enforcement officers.”
Sammy Rangel, executive director of Life After Hate, a group that seeks to deradicalize extremists, says that the Trump years provided repeated confirmation of this relationship at political rallies. An officer in New York allegedly flashed a “white power” hand sign during the Floyd protests. Footage from a 2017 Portland, Oregon, protest shows a right-wing militia member assisting police in the arrest of an anti-fascist. In a video of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, police watch as a gang of white men beat black counter-protester Deandre Harris with flags and metal poles. In Oregon, a police lieutenant in Salem was caught on video telling a group of armed white men how to avoid arrest, so “we don’t look like we’re playing favorites.”
In 2006, an FBI memo warned law enforcement and the military that they were the targets of an active campaign by white supremacists and extremists trying to infiltrate their ranks. The FBI dubbed such infiltrators “ghost skins,” for maintaining normal exteriors to blend in and hide their true aims. “White supremacists are out there, in police departments, and there’s no telling how much damage someone like that can do,” says retired Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly. “There’s no question they’re out there.”
Across the nation, police appear to have done little to heed the FBI’s warning, making authoritative estimates of how many ghost skins exist impossible to determine. California Congresswoman Norma Torres is spearheading an effort to investigate the presence of white supremacists in law enforcement. She fought for the heavily redacted FBI memo on ghost skins to be released in full and updated, in part because Donald Trump encouraged “extremist groups,” but also because so much time has passed since the original memo. Ghost-skin infiltrators could “already be in higher and higher ranks and overseeing training and recruitment,” she says.
An investigation by Rolling Stone, however, revealed a more pervasive danger: the frequent failure of police chiefs and unions to address racism in the ranks at all, let alone the threat of white supremacists covertly penetrating police departments. The lack of action from law enforcement, extremism researchers say, has created a frightening dynamic: White supremacists have been largely free to infiltrate the police force for years, potentially growing their number and infecting departments with hate. At the same time, many police unions, usually led by strident white bosses, have been resisting calls for reform and largely aligning with now-former President Trump, who’s also attracted the allegiance of far-right, often racist political groups. This confluence has only undermined the already battered and fragile trust between police and the communities they serve. “There has always been an us-and-them thinking among police,” says Boyd. “The thin blue line and all that stuff. But it feels a lot more dangerous now.”
One night in the fall of 1993, police officer Gwen Gunter arrived in the 3rd Precinct locker room to the sound of a woman crying. She discovered Anita Muldoon slumped on the floor in tears. “I am not going to pass my field training because I was told I was going to have to ‘leak an n-word,’” she remembers Muldoon saying.
After Muldoon failed her training, she sent her letter to the chief of police detailing the racism she’d seen at the precinct. He responded, she felt, dismissively, defending the training she received and telling her to contact the Professional Standards Division if she witnessed any misconduct. She had, in her letter, already notified the chief himself, she reasoned. Shouldn’t they be reaching out to her if they really wanted to conduct an investigation? Muldoon filed a suit against the city in March 1994, alleging discrimination and that she should have been treated as a whistle-blower. The city agreed to settle the suit with a cash payment and a job offer as a crime-prevention specialist.
Muldoon went on to find work as a cop in neighboring St. Paul, however, where she rose to become a homicide detective and sergeant before retiring in 2011. She says there were big differences between the two departments. “There was an openness about racism in Minneapolis,” she says, that she didn’t see in St. Paul, which for years had a progressive black police chief.
Minneapolis is emblematic of all that can go wrong in a police department that never comes to grips with issues of race. And the murder of George Floyd was the tragedy that drew national attention to a long, ongoing drama. In April, the Department of Justice announced it would investigate the city of Minneapolis and its police department — often a precursor to federal oversight and reforms.
The history of racism in the Minneapolis PD is well-documented. Just months before Muldoon arrived at the 3rd Precinct, every black officer in the department received a letter, via internal departmental mail, threatening their lives. It was signed “KKK.” In 2007, five black Minneapolis police officers filed a civil suit against the city and the police department, alleging a hostile work environment that included rampant racial discrimination in overtime assignments, promotions, training opportunities, and discipline (the city settled the suit for $740,000).
Fueling further charges of racism, between 2000 and Floyd’s death last year, 63 percent of the people killed by Minneapolis police were black, even though black people account for only 19 percent of the city’s population.
The Minneapolis PD was also typical in choosing a rough-hewn, white labor leader. Bob Kroll, the recently retired Minneapolis police-union boss, has often been at the center of the city’s race-based controversies. A history of allegations against him and his gruff defense of police made him a lightning rod in the national conversation that rose up around the Floyd protests. A thickly built man with the swagger and rough bearing of a hockey enforcer, Kroll became president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis in 2015, having worked as a young officer in the 3rd Precinct at the same time that Muldoon trained there.
Muldoon says she never had direct interactions with Kroll, but remembers he had a “big” presence. “When he was in the room, you knew it,” she says, and from the interactions she saw, he was clearly accepted by the precinct that flushed her out.
In a dynamic seen around the country, largely due to privacy agreements negotiated between police unions and politicians, a precise view of any officer’s record is difficult to obtain. In Kroll’s case, a personnel file released through the Minneapolis PD shows multiple commendations for merit and bravery, including an incident in which he dragged an unconscious driver away from a burning vehicle. His file shows he also received 22 Internal Affairs complaints, three of which resulted in some sort of discipline. The Minneapolis nonprofit Communities United Against Police Brutality, which posts records of police complaints online, lists 38 misconduct accusations against Kroll.
Early in his career, he was accused of using racial slurs while beating a mixed-race teen, initially resulting in a suspension that was later rolled back by the police chief after a federal jury cleared him of wrongdoing. In 1996, he led a botched drug raid in which a suspected drug dealer allegedly fired on police, who then fired back. Ballistics tests, however, revealed the suspect never fired his gun. The injured man, Andre Madison, filed a suit alleging police wrongfully shot him, beat him, and used racial slurs. The city settled, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Kroll was a sergeant at another drug raid, in 2002, this time in the home of a Native American family, in which officers on the team allegedly yanked a young pregnant woman out of the shower by her neck and threw her face down on the floor upon her eight-months-swollen stomach. A lawsuit that the city settled accused a cop (not Kroll) of planting drugs at the scene.
In another incident that sparked a lawsuit, Kroll was on a team that executed a warrant for a suspected armed robber, and officers allegedly terrorized the suspect’s black grandparents, knocking the 72-year-old grandfather to the ground. One officer allegedly pointed a gun at the grandmother. A judge dismissed the charges, saying no reasonable jury would decide police had used excessive force, but the court was “deeply troubled” by the officers’ use of profanity.
Kroll declined to be interviewed for this article and referred us to a trio of Minneapolis Police Federation board members, but he eventually replied through multiple emails, denying every allegation raised. “I’ve been cleared of everything I was ever wrongfully accused of,” he writes. “I’m at the end of a decorated 32-year career,” he adds. “I’ve received 12 medals and 30 letters of appreciation. Much of which was for serving people of color.… I don’t know why this archived stuff is of interest now.”
Kroll’s story, however, is a guide star toward understanding race in policing. His public statements have sometimes proven destructive to police-community relations. “My mouth gets me in trouble,” he admitted in 2016. More seriously, the 2007 suit that black Minneapolis police officers filed against the department alleged that Kroll, who was not a defendant in the suit, wore a motorcycle jacket adorned with a “white power” patch, an allegation Kroll adamantly denies. It was investigated by the department and he was cleared, he says. Further, an allegation publicly emerged in local media in 2009 that members of the police motorcycle club Kroll belonged to, City Heat, wore white-supremacist symbols, which appeared in photos on the club’s website, though no Minneapolis officers were identified wearing any of the symbols.
Kroll, via email, says, “The fact is, in Minneapolis, this is a cop motorcycle club made up of various races of members that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to benefit police or their families in need. Several times they have been for officers of color.… We are by no means a racist organization.”
The allegation against City Heat begged for an investigation that would either publicly exonerate or clean up the motorcycle club. In response to questions from Rolling Stone about whether there ever was an investigation, Minneapolis PD sent a link to a copy of Kroll’s personnel record, which had numerous redacted pages — the department does not release complaint records that don’t result in discipline — and revealed nothing about his membership in City Heat or the allegation that he wore a “white power” patch. Kroll himself subsequently sent a two-page document from Internal Affairs confirming that an investigation into City Heat had indeed taken place.
The case was closed with the finding listed as “no basis for complaint.” The document says that “after viewing the website, it doesn’t appear any violations of MPD policy and procedure have occurred.”
The investigation appears to have taken place quietly. In interviews with several officers who were in the department at the time, none were aware of an investigation, nor did the MPD conduct any evident follow-up with the public and media to share its findings. The apparent lack of action or communication with the public reflects what Southern Poverty Law Center extremism researcher Cassie Miller calls a dynamic that “you’ll see again and again,” in which some sign of racism is alleged and the department doesn’t respond with the seriousness and transparency one would expect in order to gain the public’s trust.
Law-enforcement experts, like former Police Chief Delrish Moss, who took over the Ferguson, Missouri, police department after a DOJ investigation revealed ongoing civil rights abuses, say the staff hours involved are too demanding to monitor every police officer’s social media activities and tattoos for signs of racism or radicalism. But if police are to take the FBI warning of white-supremacist infiltration seriously, they must take signs of racism seriously. “As a chief,” says Moss, “if I’ve got a guy out there who is going to keep me from being able to sleep at night, that guy’s got to go.”
Law-enforcement officers, being invested with the power to incarcerate and kill people, hold a uniquely important responsibility in society and therefore must be held to a very high standard. Yet, in the wake of the FBI warning about white supremacists infiltrating police departments, the federal government’s efforts to monitor the threat have been “strikingly insufficient,” according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
There are no authoritative estimates on how many ghost skins may have entered the police force, but anecdotal evidence provides a snapshot into what is certainly a real, if limited, phenomenon.
Frankie Meeink was a South Philly street tough running his own Nazi-skinhead gang in the early Nineties when he first encountered the ghost-skin strategy. He was introduced to it, he says, through a campaign for David Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard and then-Republican state representative in Louisiana.
Duke traded in his Klan robes for a suit in the mid-1980s and was delivering thinly veiled rhetoric about the concerns of “European Americans.” After a failed presidential bid, he was running for governor of Louisiana in 1991. “His people were looking for campaign volunteers,” says Meeink. “And they were very clear about not wanting anyone with that skinhead look.”
A man claiming to be a Duke associate visited a group that included Meeink in a private Philadelphia home for a campaign recruiting effort. Dress like a mainstream man, to take their worldview into boardrooms and beyond, he advised this younger generation of foot soldiers. Meeink was a teenager at the time, his daily life filled with violence and hate and the sense of being an outcast, an archetype later immortalized by the Edward Norton character in American History X. The recruiter “told us to be doctors, lawyers, cops, soldiers, whatever we wanted, just like everybody else, because that would be good for the movement,” says Meeink.
The goal was explicit — to join normal society and normalize white-supremacist beliefs. Meeink says a few members of his crew became cops, but the message didn’t take for him. He gave up on what members call “the movement” a few years later, and his story was captured in Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead. The idea of going undercover in society, however, planted a seed that grew like a weed in the broader movement.
“White supremacists tend to believe that most white people feel the same way they do,” says Peter Simi, a Chapman University sociology professor who’s been interviewing extremists for more than 20 years. “So why not pursue the same lives and careers as everyone else?”
The great tides of history, in the white-supremacist view, will lead to an inevitable race war, Simi explains. At the moment when white people will feel most vulnerable to fear and anger, they’ll look up and see white supremacists standing beside them. If the movement is successful, many of them will hold positions of skill and respect — including as soldiers and cops. And there is evidence that some of them may have done just that.
In the 1990s, a gang of Los Angeles officers in the Sheriff’s Department, dubbed the Lynwood Vikings, decorated themselves in matching tattoos and perpetrated waves of violence against blacks and Latinos. The city paid out millions in settlements. A federal judge labeled the group a “neo-Nazi, white-supremacist gang.”
In 2001, two police officers in Texas tried to recruit a third into the KKK, earning their dismissal. In 2014, a Louisiana law-enforcement officer got fired after a Facebook post revealed a photo of him giving a Nazi salute next to a man in KKK robes. A Philadelphia cop played drums in a racist skinhead band through the mid- to late-Nineties before joining the police force, serving until his retirement a few years ago. (He did not respond to requests to be interviewed.)
Robert McNeilly, the former Pittsburgh police chief, remembers dealing with two cops who had white-supremacist beliefs or ties. One officer wore a Confederate-flag tattoo and confessed to a commander, “I get angry when I’m working around black people.” Another distributed KKK literature at a local mall during his off hours before being discovered wearing a swastika around his house by fellow police. Both officers were eventually fired, though the KKK cop was dismissed over other charges.
Bart Alsbrook, a police chief near the Texas-Oklahoma border, resigned after he was outed in 2017 for his ties to Blood & Honour, a violent Nazi-skinhead group in Europe and America. Alsbrook denied any involvement with the group, a denial he repeated to Rolling Stone, saying he left the movement almost 20 years ago. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he had helped run Blood & Honour’s video company, NS88, a companion to the group’s music company, which sells hate music, including seminal Nazi band Skrewdriver, whose lead singer co-founded Blood & Honour.
Alsbrook also appeared on camera, boasting in a 2003 documentary about B&H’s most dangerous affiliate, Combat 18. “We have a saying that C18 is basically the militant wing of Blood & Honour,” Alsbrook said. “The C, of course, stands for Combat. The number 18 is the first letter of the alphabet, one being A and the eighth letter being H: AH, which stands for Adolf Hitler. So when you draw it out, it is Combat Adolf Hitler, which represents a fighting force, combat in the name of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler.”
A reporter discovered Alsbrook’s name on the certificate of ownership for ISD Records and NS88, two companies selling Nazi-themed music and videos. Shortly afterward, Alsbrook took a position as an officer in Achille, Oklahoma. He resigned from there in spring 2019, coincidentally or not, shortly after a black man started as the new chief. He still has a license to carry a gun and a badge in Oklahoma.
That cops with neo-Nazi affiliations in their past could retain their certifications would come as no surprise to Jeff Schoep, who served for more than 20 years as commander of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), an American Nazi party, before leaving in 2019, having grown disillusioned with the movement, he says, over time.
White supremacists often feel antipathy toward police, for upholding the current social order. But Schoep says he knew some NSM members ghosted and became cops, and active-duty or retired officers would sometimes join the NSM — a loose membership that could involve sending a check and never being heard from again. Many simply sought membership information. “We’d get a lot of people who’d call or make contact,” Schoep says, “and I think for a lot of them that was enough, to just make some brief connection without risking their job.”
With this in mind, Schoep used to instruct his members to treat police at public events in a “cordial, very respectful” manner to build on any natural sympathies they shared. The goal was to make it easy, when the race war comes, for police to fight on their side.
“We knew a lot of them sympathized with us,” says Schoep, “because they’d tell us so.” Meeink echoes this, saying cops would often tell him they “sympathized” with his cause. “They’d say things like, ‘I understand where you’re coming from. I listen to Rush Limbaugh.’ ” These exchanges happened a lot, says Meeink, to the point that when he encountered police he expected some signal of general agreement.
The relationship between white supremacists and law enforcement, says Miller, the SPLC researcher, is “based on a decades-long strategy on the part of white supremacists to appear supportive of police, and partly based on shared political beliefs.” Police officers tend to be conservatives, politically, and through their unions tend to fight for broad visions of their power. White-supremacist groups are politically far-right and favor an authoritarian police force, says Miller, unless the police stand in their way. There is a deep natural fit for some cops before virulent racial ideology ever comes into play.
“You end up with this situation,” Miller says, “in which some police looking at far-right extremists and leftist protesters see the right as closer to themselves, and closer to the American mainstream.”
Former Minneapolis Police Lt. Lee Edwards attended a retirement party for a fellow cop at the 1029 Bar in northeast Minneapolis in the mid-2000s, when, he says, he saw Bob Kroll sporting a red-and-white patch on his leather jacket, reading “White power.”
Edwards, who retired in 2016, was one of the five plaintiffs in the 2007 discrimination suit filed against the department, which included the allegation of Kroll wearing the patch. Edwards confronted Kroll about it right away, he tells Rolling Stone, pointing to the front of his jacket and asking, “What does this mean?”
“This just means I’m proud of my people,” Kroll allegedly responded. “Are you proud of your people?”
“I know what that means to me,” Edwards, a black officer, replied. “It means you’re a supremist.” Kroll didn’t respond, according to Edwards, who says he left the bar, lest staying signaled acceptance.
“The false claim was investigated and found baseless,” Kroll writes via email. “I was angry to be subjected to a false claim and having no recourse for it.” He adds, “Without exception in lawsuits, plaintiffs’ claims are fabricated for sensationalism in the opening allegations.”
In 2007, in another alleged incident that ended up in the discrimination suit against the department, it was claimed that Kroll equated then-freshman Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a practicing Muslim, with terrorists. In a city-mandated ethics-training course, Kroll supposedly said, “We’re at war with Islamic terrorists,” and then alluded to Ellison.
Gwen Gunter confronted him on the spot about what he was implying, and the two of them got into an argument, a story that made news at the time. Kroll was subsequently investigated and cleared for his remarks.
“These unfounded allegations of me from nearly 15 years ago have resurfaced enough recently,” Kroll responded via email. “I have grown tired of it.”
“There were multiple times,” says Gunter, “when Bob would be facing some internal investigation, where we just thought, ‘He can’t get out of this one.’” Then he would.
City Heat, the law-enforcement motorcycle club Kroll belongs to, received public scrutiny after the 2009 media coverage, and was included in the 2011 Anti-Defamation League report “Bigots on Bikes.” Biker gangs and white-supremacist groups share similar tastes in iconography, the ADL paper reads, making it difficult to pin down real ideological belief with any certainty. But no such ambiguity exists, the ADL concluded, around the symbols worn by some City Heat members.
The report describes photos from old City Heat events: “One member sports a patch that asks ‘Are you here for the hanging?’— a reference to lynching,” the report reads. “The lynching theme is corroborated by a small chain noose the individual wears next to the patch. Another member displays the most common Ku Klux Klan symbol, the so-called Blood Drop Cross. Several members wear ‘Proud to be white’ patches.” In a photo taken of a club gathering, supplied to Rolling Stone by the ADL, a woman wears a biker patch that appears to depict a black face in a circle crossed out by a diagonal line.
Kroll, via email, identifies the people in the photos as members of the Chicago chapter of City Heat or not as members at all, and suggests one has “moved to Florida.” A local news account in 2009 also noted that no members of the Minneapolis chapter were shown wearing the symbols. “I didn’t even know what the ADL was until you told me,” Kroll writes, and says he was “not aware of anything inappropriate” in the patches some club members were sporting.
Kroll has been dismissive of the alleged white-supremacist symbols, explaining in 2009 that the “Are you here for the hanging?” patch was a reference to a country song, and that the Confederate flag was “quite popular” in the South. “I think you would have a hard time proving racism,” he said. “There is no KKK cross that you refer to,” he tells Rolling Stone, calling it “a symbol of [the officer’s] heritage.”
“It was completely investigated and closed, clearing City Heat and myself,” Kroll writes via email. “Trust me, if they had the facts to sustain, they would have. They didn’t.”
Kroll is not without defenders. “I have been on 10 or 15 rides with Bob and members of City Heat during off hours,” Rich Walker, a Minneapolis Federation board member, says. “I have never seen anything like that. And I’m a black man, and believe me, I’d have a problem with that.”
“Bob is a very good friend of mine,” says a black former Minneapolis officer, Steve Parshall, who says City Heat held a fundraiser to help support his wife after she was injured in an accident. “I think the criticism Bob receives is unfair. I don’t think he does anything other than stick up for the average street cop.”
Kroll also received praise for his work in domestic violence from Chanel Thomas, an advocate for abuse survivors, who told local media, “He did all he could to help the domestic-violence movement. They say that you’re in domestic violence because you hate bullies: That’s Bob. He hated that somebody can prey on another person and get away with it.”
Kroll remains emblematic of the issues with race in policing, however, because his comments and actions have helped to deepen racial divisions in the same way that so many cops and police departments have: by failing to recognize how even the slightest appearance of racism on the part of a law-enforcement officer can decimate the faith of the community they serve.
Imagine, just for a moment, how much good he might have done his own public image, and police-community relations, if he had just expressed concern over the alleged white-supremacist patches worn by members of City Heat and how they would appear to the public, particularly to communities of color.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, in a leaked email from Kroll that was sent to union members, he lamented that the media was not reporting the “violent criminal history of George Floyd” and referred to BLM protests as part of a “terrorist movement,” echoing a comment he made publicly in 2016, when he called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization.”
Many of the controversies around Kroll involve his role in the union. A Minneapolis cop who told a Somali teen he was proud U.S. troops killed “you folk” during Black Hawk Down, a reference to a 1993 military engagement, asked Kroll to represent him during internal proceedings. The union filed a grievance, opposing the cop being fired, but an arbitrator upheld his termination. In another incident, two white officers took an off-duty motorcycle trip to Green Bay, Wisconsin, got into a fight with black men they called “monkeys,” and railed against the local cops when they arrived, calling them “n—-r friendly.” They were fired, and Kroll tells Rolling Stone the “Federation board did not grieve their termination.” But former Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau tells Rolling Stone that at one point Kroll spoke on the officers’ behalf, arguing that firing them was “too extreme.” If he did say this, it wouldn’t be an unusual argument for a police union to make. In the Black Hawk Down case, the union argued that other officers had not been fired when using racial slurs, as a justification — in essence fighting for a kind of racist status quo.
“I only talked to Harteau when I had to,” Kroll writes via email. “She clearly has some deep-seated issues with me as she continues to tweet and talk with media outlets about me.… I think it’s time she moves on.” Kroll also notes that the Federation’s discipline decisions are made by an entire 10-member board and were not his to make. “If officers do things that subject them to scrutiny, they should be investigated and held accountable,” he writes.
Up close, Kroll’s sense of frustration, of grievance, for being accused of racism in the media in the past seems genuine, suggesting he either willfully or unwittingly fails to grasp how his words and actions hurt.
Kroll grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul in the 1970s, and two people whose time overlapped with his at Harding High School describe the neighborhood at the time as “deeply racist,” with a very white population and few minorities.
“Bob fit right in” the community, says one of the old classmates, who requested anonymity because they still live in the neighborhood and didn’t want to damage any relationships. “But he was a sporto, on the football team, and wasn’t part of any skinhead stuff.”
One of the old classmates says they’ve crossed paths with Kroll, socially, over the years, and they would not be surprised if Kroll did not consider himself racist. Casual racism was just in the water they drank as children, unrecognized and unremarkable.
Allegations and appearances of racism seem to have been thought unremarkable by the Minneapolis PD in general. The black officers’ civil suit was settled, with no mandated changes in city policies or practices, and whatever investigation took place of City Heat was conducted out of sight. Then-Chief Tim Dolan did not respond to requests for an interview. Harteau, who took command the year after the ADL report, ordered no investigation or review of City Heat, and wasn’t aware of any investigation.
“There was no public response,” says former Pioneer Press reporter Rubén Rosario, who wrote about the white-supremacist patches. “I thought there would be some action after I wrote about it, but … the administration really dropped the ball in communicating with the public.”
Then-Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democrat and former reporter, says that when the allegation of Kroll wearing a “white power” patch appeared in the civil suit, along with the accusations about City Heat, he conferred with staff to determine if there was “anything we could do.” They determined to take no action, for reasons Rybak can’t recall. He was also unaware of an investigation of City Heat. “Obviously,” Rybak says, “we should have done more.”
Interviews with former Department of Justice attorneys and three former police chiefs all illuminate the same basic finding: In healthy police departments, where signs of racism are taken seriously, cops bring their behavior into line. But in departments where racism is ignored or accepted, it festers and grows. “Racism inside [dysfunctional] police departments is just tolerated,” says former DOJ attorney Jonathan Smith.
Two recent, separate investigations by Reveal News and the Plain View Project uncovered thousands of instances in which active and retired police joined racist, anti-Islamic, or extremist militia groups or posted violent and racist messages and memes. The Plain View Project, an investigation of eight police departments overseen by criminal-defense attorney Emily Baker-White, discovered racist or violent social media posts by 3,500 different current and former police officers. Only a little more than 100 cops appear to have received any discipline as a result.
The effect is toxic, poisoning relations between the community and police. “When there is no immediate action taken by police departments in the wake of a scandal, it sends a terrible message to law enforcement that racial bias is acceptable,” says Vida Johnson, a Georgetown law professor who wrote a comprehensive study on this subject. “It sends the identical message to the community — that the police find racial animus to be an acceptable part of policing. Police departments should care because it erodes the public’s trust in the institution of policing.”
Lynda Garcia, another former DOJ attorney, says the answer is a “zero-tolerance policy” against racism. “Use the n-word,” she says, “an officer should be fired for that.” But too often, as Muldoon’s experience exemplifies, allegations of racism are brushed aside. Obama-era DOJ investigations turned up consistent practices in which open displays of racism went not only unpunished but were actively covered up. In Baltimore, for example, investigators discovered 60 occasions in which departments “misclassified” use of the n-word to stifle serious investigation.
“That was very common,” says Christy Lopez, a former deputy chief in the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ. “Police departments would take the use of a racial slur, and rather than classify it as a potential case of ‘racial discrimination’” — a more serious charge, departmentally — “they’d tag it as ‘conduct unbecoming,’ which is more like a misdemeanor.”
DOJ reports show police routinely sent internal emails with explicitly racist views, with no repercussions, and this “see no evil” approach extended to allegations of white supremacism. Lopez, who helped oversee federal civil rights investigations in Chicago, New Orleans, and on the West Coast, saw this firsthand.
During one of her investigations, citizens presented her team with photos they had taken of police officers’ personal vehicles, bearing police bumper stickers alongside white-supremacist decals. She and her team passed the materials on to local police commanders, who performed a kind of slow sidestep. “They tried to assure us that they were taking care of it, while also saying that it wasn’t what we thought,” she says. These were the officers’ off-duty personal cars, the brass said, and they have First Amendment rights.
Lopez dismisses this argument. Racism, let alone membership in a white-supremacist group, is too destructive to a cop’s work — racial bias is grounds for dismissal at trial — to use the First Amendment as a shield. A Brennan Center for Justice report on racism in policing also notes that Supreme Court precedent allows the government to limit employment opportunities for sensitive public-sector jobs, including law enforcement, where membership in an outside group would “interfere with their duties.”
“They didn’t want to deal with it,” Lopez says of the police commanders, “and that’s what’s really telling, really troubling, is they’d rather live with a white supremacist in their ranks than take the PR hit, which, I think, tells you something about their values, but also tells you something about how prevalent it is.”
Law-enforcement researchers say that while many Americans are becoming increasingly alert to the different forms racism takes, police themselves often disregard it entirely. “When the public is informed of a cop expressing racist views,” says Johnson, “it is usually from the media or the public and not the police department. Rather than show the public that they are accountable to us, the police cover for their own.”
Police unions have come to be the face of this intransigence, often pushing back fiercely against anyone who questions police actions. In New York, the police union more or less declared war on Mayor Bill de Blasio for wanting to rein in stop-and-frisk policies and for speaking out against the police killing of Eric Garner. Philadelphia police union president John McNesby described BLM protesters as a “pack of rabid animals” and dismissed an incident in which an officer was discovered sporting an alleged Nazi tattoo as “not a big deal.” Chicago police union president John Catanzara, a vocal Trump supporter previously investigated for anti-Muslim social media posts, defended the Capitol rioters (he later apologized for it). The National Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Trump in both his presidential races, and Kroll even spoke at a 2019 Trump rally, lamenting that Obama had “oppressed” police and thanking Trump for putting “the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”
“These are not loose cannons,” says Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, “but a common type, who keep winning union elections.”
Of course, the police are not a monolith, and even critics like former DOJ attorney Garcia note that most police go about their jobs professionally. New York Law School professor Kirk Burk-halter, a former NYPD detective, says that when critics speak about racist police, they miss an important point: “Police are a reflection of society. We do not have a police-officer tree that we can pick police from, who are immune to that. So, the larger problem is racism throughout society.”
The danger he sees is what extremist researchers see — and what ghost skins hoped for: a “blurring of the lines,” so that seemingly ordinary conservatives begin looking past the hateful ideologies of white supremacy or neo-Nazism, which before might have proven too toxic, to stand next to members of extremist groups. “And that’s what we saw at the Capitol,” says Burkhalter.
Today, Muldoon looks at all this with a sense of sadness. She first learned about the George Floyd murder from her son, who texted her and asked, “Have you seen this?” When she watched the video, she had a visceral sense of being transported back to her own experience in the Minneapolis department.
“It was just horrible, and the look on his face,” she says of Derek Chauvin, the cop convicted of murder for strangling Floyd under his knee, seeing in it contempt, arrogance, and defiance, as if thinking, “I can do whatever I want.”
When asked how many police officers she thinks are actual white supremacists, Muldoon says she is “totally unaware” of anyone in the Minneapolis PD who held dual membership in the police department and an external, white-supremacist group. She also isn’t sure how much the answer matters, pointing out what should be obvious: “If a police officer works in a department that covers up for racism,” she asks, “or ignores racism when it occurs, aren’t they already part of a white-supremacist organization?”
Accusations of racism, and white supremacy, conjure visions of extremists — hateful men in white hoods or wearing swastikas, bent on murder. But merely covering up for racism, tolerating it, disregarding it — those are also racist acts. Such a summation sweeps up any union boss, rank-and-file officer, police chief, or politician who brushes over racism.
The result is that well over a decade after the FBI first issued its warning, we do not know how many white supremacists have infiltrated law enforcement. What we do know is that American police departments remain an attractive option for white supremacists seeking work.
Steve Volk is an investigative solutions reporter for Resolve Philly. Resolve is dedicated to improving how media serves mis- and under-represented communities, and provided him time to complete this story.
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