Police Abuse

Illinois Legislators Urge Cops to Designate Neo-Nazis as Terrorists. They Should Be More Concerned With White Supremacists in Police Ranks.

State and local governments have made it possible for cops to largely act with impunity.


Stephen D. Melkisethian

The Illinois legislature has passed a nonbinding resolution urging the state's police departments to designate neo-Nazi and other white nationalist groups as terrorist organizations. If they're really interested in combating white supremacy in Illinois, they'd do better to start with the white supremacists in those police departments.

A 2015 classified FBI counterterrorism policy obtained by The Intercept noted that terror investigations focused on white supremacists "often have identified active links to law enforcement officers." And of course many officers are independently racist, without ties to outside groups. In Illinois specifically, a decades-long secret torture program in Chicago exclusively targeted African-Americans, with the cops involved regularly using explicitly racist language during their torture sessions. Whether they join white supremacist groups or not, such officers are doing the violent work of white supremacy—and the government is enabling their work.

After the car attack in Charlottesville, cops from at least two states took to social media to mock the victims. They are being "investigated" internally for their posts, but it's highly unlikely anything will happen to them, given the broad employment protections that police officers have. Their lack of a filter as government employees in making controversial comments on public platforms reveals how little accountability they are used to having.

A white supremacist in a police uniform is more dangerous than the member of any organization Illinois legislators might want to see designated as a terror group, because a white supremacist in a police uniform is operating under the color of law. Police officers have little meaningful oversight or accountability, and they are entrusted to use force on individuals not complying with government rules.

Police links to white supremacist groups are difficult to uncover and even more difficult to break, thanks to a cop culture that values a "no snitching" code (the so-called blue wall of silence). And thanks in large part to state laws and union-negotiated rules, it's exceedingly difficult for police chiefs to fire problem cops with histories of abuse, let alone those that may have affiliations that ought to be incompatible with police work. A recent Washington Post investigation found that the country's largest police departments had reinstated more than 400 officers who had previously been fired for misconduct, usually after union-contract-mandated arbitration.

"It is vital that we stand in total opposition to the hatred, bigotry and violence displayed by the white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville this past weekend," Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon (D–Oak Park), who sponsored the resolution, said after his bill passed. "They are the heirs to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. We fought two bloody wars in opposition to their ideologies. We must continue to fight those same twisted ideologies today."

Police departments themselves have sometimes been among the most racist institutions in American history. Decades of state lawmaking and undue deference to police union reps have turned cops into a uniquely privileged class, and have turned many of those they are sworn to serve and protect into second-class citizens.

Illinois lawmakers have the power to pass legislation to change this. But that would require challenging powerful special interests. Empty preening is easier.