No extremist groups on list barring Chicago police officer membership, only street gangs

Facing sharp criticism for tolerating officers with ties to extremist groups, the Chicago Police Department implemented new rules earlier this year aimed at barring officers from joining such organizations.

But the department’s registry of “criminal and biased organizations” does not list any of the far-right groups that officers have associated with, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

The document includes 675 gang factions that department members are forbidden from joining — but no hate or extremist groups. A police spokesperson indicated such groups will be identified on a case-by-case basis.

Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said the omission of specific groups could allow officers to dodge accountability.

“We do not want to be in a situation where a CPD member could point to this list and say, ‘Well, the KKK does not appear among the enumerated groups, and therefore there’s no problem with my affiliating with that group,’” Witzburg said.

“That’s not going to get us anywhere in terms of actually rooting out the problem.”

But Anthony Driver, head of a new civilian police oversight panel that worked on the measure, said he’s confident the policy can be used to better target cops with troubling ties.

“No matter what the name of the organization is, if it fits the description that is laid out in our general order, an officer could be disciplined if they’re associating with that particular group,” he said.

Anthony Driver Jr., president of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, speaks at a City Hall news conference in March 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

History of extremism

The revised policy was finalized after a series of reports by WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Projects revealed the misconduct records of cops with ties to the Oath Keepers and detailed the department’s history of extremism.

The “Extremism in the Ranks” series prompted the department to reopen an internal investigation into the influence of the Oath Keepers in the department.

But in April, CPD officials cleared eight current officers of wrongdoing, six of whom acknowledged investigators that they had signed up for the militia group.

In a series of investigations that have stretched years, only one officer has faced discipline after being linked to an extremist group. Proud Boys associate Robert Bakker was suspended for 120 days in 2022, though Witzburg and other critics have argued that he should have been fired for lying about his involvement with the neo-fascist gang.

The new policy broadly prohibits “active participation” in criminal or biased organizations, which must be defined as such by the Bureau of Counterterrorism.

Records identifying those organizations must be disseminated at least twice annually to department members, who can also inquire about a group’s status independently.

The policy specifically bars officers from joining groups that “seek to overthrow, destroy, or alter the form of government of the United States,” much like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling looks on as Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks during a news conference at CPD headquarters in April.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson promised in his campaign last year to rid CPD of Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. But he publicly backed Police Supt. Larry Snelling when he announced the recent Oath Keepers probe had been closed without any finding of wrongdoing.

Johnson, however, seemed unaware that most of the officers under investigation had acknowledged they joined the group.

“If there are individuals who have been sworn to serve and protect, if they reduce themselves to that type of ideology or affiliation, then yes, I still stand by my position that those individuals should not receive the honor to wear the badge.” Johnson said at a May 3 news conference with Snelling.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, several members of the City Council and the Leaders Network, a group of West Side activists and faith leaders, have called on Johnson and Snelling to reconsider their decision to absolve the cops with Oath Keepers ties.

“They certainly don’t belong in law enforcement in a city as diverse as Chicago,” said Leaders Network President David Cherry.

Being involved in extremist groups, Cherry said, conflicts with the oath they take as officers in the CPD.

“There is a high risk when these individuals are patrolling the streets if in fact they have any kind of level of hatred against the people that they’re sworn to serve and protect,” he said. “Being in the Chicago Police Department should be a privilege. It’s not a right.”

Johnson’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘Lack of desire or incompetence’

The push to take a tougher stance against extremism served as an early collaboration between the police department and the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, the body that Driver leads.

Driver said an early version of the policy was revised to strip out language explicitly requiring CPD to maintain a list of organizations, given that some extremist groups have rebranded. He said the policy aims to focus on specific conduct.

“The reason that’s important is because now we’re focusing on behavior,” he said.

Tracy Siska, executive director of the nonprofit Chicago Justice Project, said the lack of any extremist groups on the CPD’s list of banned organizations shows that police officials “don’t take the threat from these types of organizations seriously.”

“It’s appalling that they can be seemingly so completely centered on quote-unquote street gangs only,” Siska said. “It’s really sad, and it really just shows a complete either lack of desire to do their job or incompetence.

“Neither one, though, should the residents of Chicago and the mayor and the leadership take lightly.”

Inspector General Witzburg worries that the new policy will still allow officers to join extremist groups.

“That puts us in a situation where the mere fact that the name of an organization does not appear on some list might mean that somebody escapes discipline for affiliating with a problematic or extremist group,” she said.

Witzburg insisted that existing department rules — including a prohibition against bringing discredit upon the department — were adequate to discipline cops with extremist ties — if enforced.

“The existence and the applicability of those rules don’t change with the advent of this new policy,” she said. “I think the new policy — and what appears to be CPD’s accompanying list — frankly muddies the water a little bit.”

READ THE SERIES — Extremism in the Ranks

A three-part investigation by the Sun-Times, WBEZ and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

An investigation by WBEZ, Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found allegations of excessive force, improper searches and racist comments on the job.
A new civilian oversight panel is working with Chicago police on a policy that would bar officers from joining hate and extremist groups.
The Oath Keepers’ membership rolls included an Illinois state trooper, a campus cop for the University of Illinois Chicago and an officer in a village known as “America’s First Black Town.”
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