Books

White Racism in America's Police Departments Is So Much Worse Than Most Americans Understand

CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues' new book exposes the under-reported "ghost skins": hidden white supremacists in law enforcement.

SAN FRANCISCO—MAY 15, 2015: SFPD officers pat down a black man in San Francisco. Overall, black Americans are arrested at 2.6 times the per-capita rate of other Americans.
Photo Credit: ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America by Jeff Pegues (Prometheus Books, May 2017):

GHOST SKINS

The vast majority of police officers across the nation are doing the right thing. But there is a small percentage who are tarnishing the badge. Over the last several years, in addition to the police shootings that have sparked calls for reform, there have been scandals in departments from coast to coast. Some of those scandals have highlighted explicit racism within the ranks. Once again, technology plays a role in how that racism is exposed, as text messages often unearth bigotry in the rank and file. In 2015, an internal investigation in Miami Beach, Florida, revealed that sixteen officers had sent hundreds of racially offensive, sexist, and pornographic e-mails. Two of the officers were high-ranking and were believed to be the main instigators.

According to CBS reporting, Miami Beach police chief Daniel Oates informed reporters that the internal investigation uncovered 230 e-mails that were demeaning to African Americans and women or pornographic in nature. Many were reported to be depictions of crude racial jokes involving President Obama or black celebrities such as golfer Tiger Woods. One showed a woman with a black eye and the caption, “Domestic violence. Because sometimes, you have to tell her more than once.” One of the racially offensive e-mails depicted a board game called “Black Monopoly” in which every square says “go to jail.”

The county’s top prosecutor, Miami-Dade state attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at the time that the officers’ behavior had jeopardized about 540 cases in which the officers were witnesses. Rundle called the officers’ actions “a breach of trust” and “disgusting.”

On the opposite side of the country, in San Francisco, California, the stain of racism was arguably much greater on that city’s police department. It was a story that probably didn’t get as much attention as it should have, and it’s hard to figure out why. Perhaps it was because it was on the West Coast? Or because it was simply overshadowed by other similar stories happening in other cities across the country. But, regardless, looking back now—what was happening within the SFPD was probably among the most shocking cases to roil law enforcement in some time. This was so shocking in part because the city is seen as such a beacon of tolerance.

A corruption probe exposed the underbelly of the police department when San Francisco police sergeant Ian Furminger was stripped of his badge and then sentenced to 41 months in federal prison. The 48-year-old was convicted of stealing money and property from drug dealers. He was clearly a bad cop who was also terribly reckless. According to court papers, his behavior as a police officer included throwing small explosives out of moving cars for fun and stealing antique call boxes. Such papers also pointed out that he was a “virulent racist and homophobe who, even while a police officer, felt free to share his views with other individuals, including other San Francisco police officers.” As investigators dug for evidence in the corruption case, they obtained the cop’s cell phone and text messages between October 2011 and June 2012. He was still a police officer during that time, and he was sending text messages to friends and to other officers. The messages were racist:

“Don’t worry about my height, worry that I’m white!”

“White Power!”

“We got two blacks at my boys [sic] school and they are brother and sister! There cause dad works for the school district and I am watching them like hawks.”

[In response to a text asking, “Do you celebrate quanza [sic] at your school?” Furminger wrote] “Yeah we burn the cross on the field! Then we celebrate Whitemas.”

“Its [sic] worth every penny to live here [Walnut Creek] away from the savages.”

“Those guys are pretty stupid! Ask some dumb ass questions you would expect from a black rookie! Sorry if they are your buddies!”

“The buffalo soldier was why the Indians Wouldnt [sic] shoot the n—s that found for the confederate They [sic] thought they were sacred buffalo and not human.”

“Gunther Furminger was a famous slave auctioneer.”

“My wife has 2 friends over that don’t know each other the cool one says to me get me a drink n— not knowing the other is married to one just happened right now LMFAO.”

“White power.”

[In response to a text saying, “N—s should be spayed”] “I saw one an hour ago with 4 kids.”

“I am leaving it like it is, painting KKK on the sides and calling it a day!”

“Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!”

[In response to a text saying, “All n—s must f—ing hang,” Furminger wrote] “Ask my 6 year old what he thinks about Obama.”

[In response to a text saying, “Just boarded train at Mission/16th,” Furminger wrote] “Ok, just watch out for BM’s” [black males].

“I hate to tell you this but my wife friend [sic] is over with their kids and her husband is black! If [sic] is an Attorney but should I be worried?” [Furminger’s friend, an SFPD officer, responded: “Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its (sic) not against the law to put an animal down.” Furminger responded] “Well said!”

[In response to a text from another SFPD officer regarding the promotion of a black officer to sergeant, Furminger wrote] “F—in n—.”

During Furminger’s appeal for bail, a prosecutor wrote in court documents:

If the medals and awards Furminger received as a police officer are somehow relevant to the analysis of his character, his views regarding black citizens, who were part of the population he was sworn to protect, also are relevant. He not only possessed but felt free to articulate these views to others while he was a San Francisco Police Officer. Although these sort of overtly racist views sadly are still expressed in some communities, it is shocking and appalling to find a police officer in San Francisco who would give voice to them. Furminger’s willingness to do so—which exemplifies his erratic and anti-social behavior—should be taken into account.

Furminger called his conviction “disgusting.” He added, “I’m well-educated, 20 years a cop, never had a complaint, civil or suits.”

It wasn’t just Furminger, though. More SFPD cops would fall in the scandal. In April 2015, San Francisco’s police chief said he had moved to dismiss seven officers who sent or received text messages that spoke of lynching African Americans and burning crosses.

According to the New York Times, Police Chief Greg Suhr said the texts, “are of such despicable thinking that those responsible clearly fall below the minimum standards required to be a police officer.” The texts were sent or received by as many as fourteen police officers in the department. Prosecutors and public defenders announced that they would be conducting a review to see if the cases the officers worked on had been tainted in anyway by their “animus toward racial minorities or gays.” The New York Times wrote that the lawyers for the officers have said the texts did not represent their clients’ opinions and were little more than naïve banter meant to blow off steam in their high-stress jobs.

It almost doesn’t make sense that racist text messages would be shared over and over again between more than a dozen officers in a department with a good record for hiring diverse candidates. The DOJ investigation, which was concluded in the fall of 2016, found that between 2013 and 2015, minority candidates accounted for 50.2 percent of all candidates entering the SFPD Academy. But “gender, racial, and ethnic minority recruits were terminated at a higher rate from recruit training than white male recruits.”

San Francisco’s population of 824,834 residents is comprised of 49.3 percent whites and 5.8 percent African American. The police department was more than 9 percent African American. While that number was higher than the percentage of blacks making up the city’s population and at least appeared to demonstrate a commitment to increasing diversity, the lack of it in any major numbers seemed to give some officers in SFPD a “green light” to share racist text messages. What did that say about the culture within the department? Look at what precipitated the Department of Justice investigation. There was a slew of incidents in addition to the Furminger investigation.

According to the Department of Justice:

In a 2010 criminal investigation, a series of racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages was found to have been shared among a group of SFPD officers. The public was not informed about this issue until February 2014.

In a similar incident made public in early 2016, prosecutors investigating an alleged sexual assault involving an SFPD officer discovered a series of racist and homophobic texts shared among the accused officer, his supervisor, and several additional SFPD officers in 2015.

When the DOJ report on San Francisco was announced, it sounded similar to the investigations into the police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Just as they did in those cities, DOJ investigators found clear patterns of behavior by police officers that negatively impacted people of color.

• African American residents were disproportionately stopped compared to their representation in the driving population.

• African American and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be stopped and searched compared to white drivers.

• The majority of incidents involving the use of deadly force also involves residents of color; furthermore, the SFPD does not adequately investigate police use of force.

Once again, the DOJ found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups.”

A number of indicators highlighted the disparities in the way San Francisco police were doing their jobs.

A summary of data analysis is as follows:

Analyses of the SFPD’s traffic stop data reveal racial or ethnic disparities in stops, warnings, citations, arrests, searches, and contraband discovery. Citywide, African-American drivers were 24 percent more likely to be stopped by the police than their estimated representation in the driving population, and they were 9 percent more likely to be stopped than their estimated representation among potential traffic violators. Hispanic and Asian drivers, on the other hand, were considerably less likely to be stopped than their representation in the estimated driving and traffic violating populations in the city. African-American drivers were more likely to be warned, arrested, and searched (for both consent and high discretionary reasons) but less likely to be cited or found to be in possession of contraband than White drivers. Hispanic drivers were more likely to be arrested and searched (for both consent and high discretionary reasons) but less likely to be cited or found to be in possession of contraband than White drivers. Finally, Asian drivers were more likely to be cited or found with contraband but less likely to warned, arrested, or searched based on consent than White drivers.

While these results indicate patterns of disparity, no definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding the underlying motivation for these outcomes including the possibility of racial or ethnic bias. Nonetheless, the patterns of disparity in post-stop outcomes are consistent with those found for the initial stop decision and warrant further monitoring, investigation, and analysis—possibly by drilling down to the officer or unit level using officer-to-officer comparison (“internal benchmarking”) techniques as part of an early warning approach by the SFPD.

Bias in the actions of police officers erodes community trust and support. The SFPD as a whole exhibits a level of organizational understanding and awareness of bias and its implications for policing. Yet there are few demonstrable and measurable outcomes that assist in ensuring that biased policing is removed from the department’s culture.

The SFPD must address the issue of bias directly and make the cultural changes needed not only to create a procedurally just and fair organization but also to account for those officers who engage in biased behaviors. Training and accountability must function in tandem with institutional cultural change to make a sustainable difference. When the police act outside the law or contravene their own policies on a regular basis, their legitimacy and the public’s trust is negatively impacted. The SFPD must develop an ongoing institutional vision that addresses bias as part of an overall strategic plan, one that is transparent and gives voice to the community.

But it’s more than just traffic stops and “stop and frisk.” In Chicago, it was literal torture; and in April 2015, the city agreed to a $5.5 million settlement for victims of a former cop. CPD commander Jon Burge was alleged to have tortured 120 African American men between 1972 and 1991. He never went to prison for torturing the men, because the statute of limitations ran out. So the only case that would stick was perjury, because he lied under oath when he denied his role in the horror. According to the Washington Post, when Burge wanted to get people to confess to a crime, he would pull out a box. The box had two wires and a crank. His alleged victims told prosecutors that Burge would attach one wire to the suspect’s handcuffed ankles and the other to his (handcuffed) hands. Then Burge would place a plastic bag over the suspect’s head. He would crank the little black box, and electricity would pump through the suspect’s body. One witness told prosecutors, “when he hit me with the voltage, that’s when I started gritting, crying, hollering. It [felt] like a thousand needles going through my body.”

As the Washington Post describes, Burge would ask suspects, “You going to talk, n—?” And the suspects confessed. They were confessing to crimes they never committed. But that wouldn’t come out until some of them had served thirty years behind bars. Mounting evidence of torture led to Burge’s firing in 1993. He went to prison on that perjury charge but spent about four and half years locked up until he was released with a monthly $4,000 CPD pension. When the Washington Post reported on the story, some of Burge’s alleged victims were still behind bars. Burge’s story should have been a cautionary tale for all of America, but most people aren’t even aware that it happened, or they choose to forget.

San Francisco and Chicago are just a couple of examples of police departments that have had shocking bias incidents beyond police shootings of black men, which some argue points to other issues in the rank and file that may be harder to root out. A police chief I spoke with says the key to rooting out the bad cops starts when they fill out an application. His department tries to thoroughly screen candidates, and he says you’d be surprised about what comes up when people apply for the job.

Pegues: What kind of things come up?

Unidentified Police Chief: Substance abuse. Gang relations. White supremacy.

Pegues: White supremacy?

Unidentified Police Chief: If you want me to say that that doesn’t exist anywhere, I don’t think I can give you a 100 percent answer. But there’s obviously problems, because things are happening. There’s obviously problems. I think we have a long road ahead of us.

Pegues: When you say “things are happening” [what do you mean]? Have you seen cases?

Unidentified Police Chief: I certainly saw it when I first came on about twenty years ago. It was sort of an us-against-them kind of mentality. I would hear statements like, “I have three of THEM stopped.” If someone says something like that today, they can be terminated.

While times have changed, should a 2006 FBI report titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement,” be ignored? The bureau often compiles reports on domestic and international threats as a way of informing the nation’s local police departments. Some of these reports seem rather routine and go unnoticed by the media, but this one really stood out. Several sections of the report were redacted, but what was made public said a lot about the severity of what the FBI believed was the threat of white supremacists infiltrating the ranks of police.

In a section the document titled “key judgements,” investigators wrote:

• White supremacist leaders and groups have historically shown an interest in infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.

• The Primary threat from infiltration or recruitment arises from the areas of intelligence collection and exploitation, which can lead to investigative breaches and can jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources and personnel.

• White supremacist presence among law enforcement personnel is a concern due to the access they may possess to restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage and to elected officials or protected persons, whom they could see as potential targets for violence.

• The intelligence acquired through the successful infiltration of law enforcement by one white supremacist group can benefit other groups due to the multiple allegiances white supremacists typically hold.

According to the FBI, white supremacists have a name for their sympathizers among law enforcement: “ghost skins.” Ghost skins are white supremacists who avoid overt displays of their beliefs and blend into society while covertly advancing white-supremacist causes. The FBI report says, “at least one white supremacist group has reportedly encouraged ghost skins to seek positions in law enforcement. ...”

This has been an excerpt from the new book Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America by Jeff Pegues (Prometheus Books, May 2017).

Jeff Pegues is the justice and homeland security correspondent for CBS News. In this capacity he has participated in closed-door interviews with FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. In the aftermath of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Pegues orchestrated an interview with the chiefs of police representing four major U.S. cities. In 2015, he covered all angles of the Charleston, South Carolina, church killings, beginning with the manhunt for the suspect and culminating with a special report analyzing President Obama's eulogy at the funeral of State Senator Clementa Pinckney. Previous to joining CBS News, Pegues spent 10 years at WABC-TV in New York. He is the recipient of three Emmy Awards, numerous Emmy Award nominations, and the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the author of Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America.

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