An official audit of five large California law enforcement agencies uncovered significant evidence of racial bias among officers, some of whom were found to openly support extremist groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and neo-Confederate organizations.
The results of the state auditor’s investigation into “biased conduct” — launched at the request of the legislature — were released last week in a 95 page report. The investigation surveyed the patterns and practices of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department, the police departments of San Jose, San Bernardino, and Stockton, as well as the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Examining the public-facing social media accounts of 450 officers, the audit uncovered biased posts by 13 active officers, and four others who posted prior to joining law enforcement. The social media posts included derogatory statements or memes about Black, Asian, Latino, Muslim, and LGBTQ individuals, as well as of women and immigrants. (The audit presents the 450 accounts it examined as a representative cross-sample of more than 40,000 officers across the five departments.)
One Stockton police officer posted a picture of woman (redacted in the report) and the caption “Looked up the definition DUMB CUNT and this lady popped up… Sorry if this is anyone’s mom, wife, throwdown, etc. but if it is plz throat punch her for me.” That officer received only a letter of reprimand, the audit indicates.
Another meme reproduced in the report shows a transgender woman with the caption: “IF THIS IS A WOMAN” … “THIS IS A FISHING POLE” superimposed over the image of an AR-15 assault pistol.
The audit found troubling signs of extremism, in addition to bigotry, identifying six active officers who affiliated themselves, “liked,” or defended dangerous groups online. One officer (who also posted biased content demeaning transgender and Asian individuals) posted an impassioned defense of the Proud Boys from accusations of white supremacy, insisting that the critics of the violent club — designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center — are “in reality just against masculinity.”
Two officers affiliated themselves with the revolutionary Three Percent militia ideology, which warns of federal tyranny and holds that just three percent of the populace can take up arms and overthrow the government. One made the “III%” logo his online avatar, while another shared Threeper content.
A fourth officer publicly liked an anti-immigrant extremist group (not named in the audit) that propagates stereotypes that immigrants are criminals and terrorists who harm citizens and taxpayers. The fifth officer “affiliated with a group that opposed same-sex marriage and promoted claims that having same-sex parents is harmful to children.” The sixth officer “liked a social media page that lauds the Confederacy.” (The audit noted that it was limited to social media self-declarations and could not definitively prove that the officers in question “were members of hate groups.”)
The state audit offers new evidence to critics who’ve long decried California’s largest law enforcement agencies for mistreating minority residents and being too cozy with extremist movements.
Not that such behavior is hidden: A recent Tri-County Sheriff’s Forum — featuring the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino county — reportedly welcomed a booth flying a Three Percenter flag. Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva has recently come under congressional scrutiny for failing to root out racist officer gangs in his department. Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco, meanwhile, is an unapologetic former member of the Oath Keepers, whose founder is charged with leading a seditious conspiracy to keep Trump in power by force.
Apart from highlighting the social media of extremist cops, the state audit hits the agencies it studied for “key deficiencies” in their efforts to reduce bias in policing.
Poor Recruiting and Training
The problems begin with lax recruiting that often fails to screen new hires for experience or competence in interacting with diverse constituencies, and often neglects to ask references whether prospective hires have demonstrated discriminatory behavior.
The audit also underscores that anti-bias education is usually not required outside of the training academy, and that voluntary training sessions are woefully attended. The L.A. Sheriff’s department offers an anti-bias course twice annually, for example, “but only 15 of its more than 10,000 sheriff’s deputies attended this course from 2018 through 2021.”
It’s Only Bias if Its Blatant
The audit finds that most law enforcement agencies investigate and discipline only “the most blatant forms of bias, such as uttering racial slurs.” (As an example of an officer who did receive discipline, the audit highlights a corrections officer who taunted a young Black inmate about eating “watermelon and chicken.”)
But the report also highlights several egregious cases in which allegations of bias were dismissed. In one, a pair of Stockton officers approached a Black man sitting in his car in a parking lot, searched the vehicle without cause, and ultimately arrested the man for standing up for his rights.
The cops first asked him: “Are you on probation or parole or anything?” — a question they’d not been asking white drivers that evening. When the man objected that he was being profiled, the officers accused him of playing the “race card.” As the man continued to stand up for his civil rights, the officers accused him of being racist, insisting that Martin Luther King would be “rolling over in his grave right now.” The two officers were ultimately reprimanded for making an unlawful arrest, but given “no discipline or corrective action related to bias.”
In another case, an officer with an unnamed department profiled and stopped a Latino man as a potential burglary suspect. The officer demanded that this man show his “papers” — in other words, document his immigration status. When the man objected to this treatment, the officer gaslighted him, saying he was making things up: “This is what you call a novela,” the cop said. “It’s a Telemundo special.” There was no discipline meted out to the officer in this case, either.
It’s Not Bias if the Cop Denies It
The audit blasts law enforcement agencies for over-reliance on officer denials of bias “which is a poor investigative practice.”
When a cop denies they were motivated by bigotry, in many departments that’s the end of the investigation — “without considering whether an officer’s conduct created the reasonable appearance of bias,” the report states.
The audit quotes an interaction between an anonymous investigator and cop as typical:
Investigator: Did you mention to [the complainant] that you were handcuffing him because he was Mexican in a white neighborhood?
Investigator: Was there a reason why he was so concerned, he kept bringing up repeatedly, stating he was being stopped by white officers?
Officer: I have no idea why.
Investigator: Okay. Are you racist against Hispanic people?
Investigator: …So was your reaction to his behavior based on his race?
Investigator: Was it based on his actions?
Officer: His actions, yes.
Investigator: Okay. I think we’ve discussed that enough.
Demands for Reform
While the California audit is more antiseptic in its language than a similar, scathing report from the state of Minnesota calling out racism in the Minneapolis Police Department, it does not pull punches.
It finds that none of the law enforcement agencies surveyed have “addressed bias in their organizations in a comprehensive manner.” It calls out each of the police agencies for not having “appropriately addressed indications of bias when they occurred.” And it hits several agencies for having “poorly tracked their bias investigations, obscuring the extent of the problem and reducing public transparency.”
The audit presses law enforcement agencies to be quicker to call out indications of bias, but also to be less punitive when issues of implicit bias arise — calling for education and training of officers who foul up, in lieu of salary cuts and suspensions.
Finally the audit calls on state leaders to intervene to impose a “uniform definition of biased conduct” to require “more frequent and thorough training” and to increase and empower independent oversight — a formal recognition, as if more was needed, that law enforcement agencies aren’t going to reform themselves.