…they are known to exist but tolerated.
By Maddy Crowell and Sylvia Varnham O’Regan for The Guardian.
Ever since he was a teenager, Joshua Doggrell has believed that the former slave-holding states of the American south should secede from the United States. When he was a freshman in college at the University of Alabama in 1995, Doggrell discovered a group whose worldview chimed with his – the League of the South. The League believes that white southern culture is in danger of extinction from forces such as religious pluralism, homosexuality and interracial coupling. Doggrell wanted to protect that culture.
In 2006, when he was 29 years old, he applied to be a police officer in Anniston, Alabama, a sparsely populated city at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, where more than half of the residents are people of colour. On his police application, Doggrell wrote that he was a member of the League. Shortly after, he was hired.
During nearly a decade on the police force, Doggrell was a vocal advocate for the League, working to recruit fellow officers to the group. He encouraged his colleagues to attend the League’s monthly meetings, which he held at a steakhouse not far from the police station. On Facebook, he posted neo-Confederate material, including a photo of an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and wrote that he was “against egalitarianism in all forms”. He often refused to be in the room when the department recited the pledge of allegiance in front of the American flag.
In 2013, Doggrell delivered the opening speech at the League’s annual conference, on how to “cultivate the good will” of police officers. “The vast majority of men in uniform are aware that they’re southerners,” Doggrell told the audience, which included the prominent neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach and another Anniston police officer Doggrell had recruited to the group.
Doggrell added that most southern officers were “a lot closer” to joining the League than they were 10 or 15 years ago. “My department,” he added, “has been very supportive of me. I’ve somehow been promoted twice since I was there.”
“Everybody knew he was in the League of the South,” Matt Delozier, a retired sergeant from the Anniston police department, told us when we met him near Anniston earlier this year. “I think the general consensus was that nobody understood – if you’re out here in law enforcement in a supervisor’s role, why are you involved in this group?” But it wasn’t until 2015, when a leaked video of Doggrell’s speech led to a report that went viral across the US, that the city’s manager fired him. (Doggrell’s superiors did not raise any concerns over his conduct as an officer.) Doggrell went on to appeal the dismissal and sue both the city and the city manager, arguing that his termination had violated his constitutional rights.
Although it is unusual for a police officer to be so open about his involvement in an extremist organisation, for decades, anti-government and white-supremacist groups have been attempting to recruit police officers into their ranks.
“It is something a lot of folks are overlooking,” says Vida B Johnson, an assistant professor of law at Georgetown University. “Police forces are becoming more interested in talking about implicit bias – the unconscious, racial biases we carry with us as Americans. But people aren’t really addressing the explicit biases that are present on police forces.”
According to Johnson’s research, there have been at least 100 different scandals, in more than 40 different states, involving police officers who have sent racist emails and text messages, or made racist comments on social media, since the 1990s. A recent investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from around the country were members of confederate, anti-government and anti-Islam groups on Facebook. But there is no official record of officers who are tied to white supremacist or other extremist groups because, in the US, there is no federal policy for screening or monitoring the country’s 800,000+ law enforcement officers for extremist views.
The 18,000 or so police departments across the country are largely left to police themselves.
To much of the rest of the country, the town of Anniston, Alabama is primarily known as the site of a traumatic episode in the American civil rights movement. On 14 May 1961, the Freedom Riders, a group of black and white civil rights activists, arrived by bus in Anniston to protest segregation. They were attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, who slashed the bus’s tyres, broke its windows and set fire to it in an attempt to kill the protesters. Even though the Anniston police department was only a block away, the officers didn’t show up on the scene until the early afternoon, and made no arrests.
Today, Anniston remains sharply divided along racial lines. The majority of the city’s black community lives south-west of downtown, in run-down, single-storey houses. East of the city centre, manicured lawns and picket fences adorn the predominantly white neighbourhood. Although roughly 50% of the city’s 24,000 residents are black, the people who govern the city are mostly white. “It always comes down to leadership,” said David E Reddick, one of the city’s two black council members and a former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, when we met in his office. “You’ve got a city where you’ve got three whites and two blacks on the council, and you need three votes to get anything done.”
“Blacks are being targeted in this city,” Reddick continued. According to the city’s other black council member, Ben Little, its officers regularly pull black people over for minor offences such as traffic violations. Little also said that members of the police department had often intimidated and harassed him, or stood by while others did. After being particularly vocal in his criticisms of police abuses in 2012, he woke up one morning to find caution tape wrapped like a noose around his truck. When Little and Reddick voiced their concerns about local policing two years ago, the local newspaper, the Anniston Star, responded with the headline: “NAACP leaders, with little evidence, claim racism by police, courts”.
Joshua Doggrell claims that his views are not unusual in Anniston. “My people are Southern people and we grew up proud of our Southern heritage,” he told us, when we met him at a restaurant where he used to host League of the South meetings. He is solidly built, with a round, puffy face, and drove a black pickup truck with Confederate flags on the front bumper. He insisted that he was not a racist or a white supremacist, and claims that he had ceased his involvement with the League by early 2015, but admitted he thought “there are some things the white race did better throughout the history of mankind, like governing”.
He couched his extremist views in careful terms, often centred on his religious beliefs: he wasn’t “against blacks”, he claimed – he just didn’t believe God had created the races to be mixed.
Doggrell presented himself as a victim who had been wronged by the city when he was fired from the police department. When he joined the force in 2006, none of his superiors flagged his membership in the League of the South as an issue, he told us. (The police department refused multiple requests for interviews.) Three years later, Doggrell started a local chapter of the League, and invited a number of fellow officers to its first meeting. At the meeting, the League’s founder, a former history professor named Michael Hill, argued that the time had come for a new civil war. “The way I look at it,” Hill told the group, “This is round two of the same battle.”
The department’s tolerance for Doggrell seemed to be mirrored by some of the local press. When Doggrell held his League chapter’s first meeting, in an Anniston diner, he invited a reporter from the Anniston Star to cover it. The Star published a 380-word account of the meeting that read like the announcement of a new seniors’ night at the bingo hall: “Local Secessionists Hold 1st Meeting.”
But several people of colour in Anniston recognised Doggrell’s name in the report and were alarmed. Abdul Khalil’llah, the director of an Anniston-based civil rights organisation, sent letters to the Alabama attorney general’s office and the US secretary of homeland security in April 2009. “I was basically astonished to hear that a police officer – someone who’d taken an oath to uphold the law – could be in a neo-Confederate type of organisation,” Khalil’llah said.
Khalil’llah’s letters went unanswered, but in response to his complaints, the Anniston police department decided to conduct an internal investigation into Doggrell later that year. A few officers had found Doggrell’s views odd, but the department decided to take no action against him. “He is a dedicated, professional police officer,” then police chief, John Dryden, wrote in a report. “He has never showed any radical action in his duties as a police officer.”
It was not a concern to the police department that Doggrell was part of an organisation that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors rightwing extremist organisations, had labelled a “hate group” since 2000. (The SPLC “can label anything”, Dryden wrote in the report.)
Not long after the investigation, Doggrell was promoted to sergeant and then, a few years later, to lieutenant. Doggrell’s former boss, Layton McGrady, acknowledged at a 2015 hearing into Doggrell’s dismissal that Doggrell’s association with the League of the South wasn’t a factor when he was up for promotion. Asked why not, McGrady said it “didn’t affect his job performance or the police department”.
While not every police officer who is tied to a white supremacist group will necessarily act out their beliefs violently, the presence of even a single radicalised officer can terrorise a community.
“Even if the number of officers is numerically small, because of the intense risks posed of having a ticking time bomb like that in a department, that’s a big deal,” said Brian Levin, a former NYPD officer who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California.
In a number of cases, ideologically radicalised police officers have gone on to commit extreme forms of violence.
In one of the most disturbing cases, a civil rights lawsuit from 1991 alleged that a group of officers from the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department systematically terrorised and harassed minority residents by vandalising their homes, beating and torturing them, and even killing members of the community. The accused officers turned out to be members of the Lynwood Vikings, a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang”, according to a federal judge. (The county settled the case for $9m).
In 2012, an officer in Little Rock, Arkansas who had once attended a KKK meeting, shot and killed a 15-year-old black boy. Earlier this year, in Holton, Michigan, an officer was fired after a framed KKK application and Confederate flags were discovered in his home.
“Since the inception of this nation, black people have been under threat from the police,” said Whitney Shepard, who works at the DC-based organisation Stop Police Terror Project. “There’s not really ever been a time in this country where the police have protected our communities.”
In 2006, a leaked report from the FBI’s counterterrorism division warned that white supremacists have spent decades trying to “infiltrate law enforcement communities or recruit law enforcement personnel”. The document, first reported on by the Intercept, noted that the term “ghost skins” had gained currency among white supremacists, to describe extremists who “avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes”.
But experts have difficulty gauging the number of white supremacists within law enforcement. Some give ballpark figures in the low hundreds, while others can’t give an estimate at all. This has led some to downplay the issue. “Let’s say you’ve got thousands that are sympathetic or members of extremist groups,” a former FBI analyst said to us. “Is that a big deal? It’s not good, obviously, because police officers do have such great power, but I wouldn’t say it’s a huge problem.”
The problem may be growing, though. “We’re seeing the radical right rise in substantial ways, and inevitably that is reflected in police forces and security forces more generally,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Although the FBI keeps tabs on white supremacist and other types of extremist groups operating within the US, it typically only mounts full investigations when there’s a reasonable indication of criminal activity. The Bureau may know of some officers who are active members of white supremacist organisations, but it maintains that it’s not the FBI’s place to remove them from police forces unless they violate federal law. “We do not and will not police ideology,” an FBI spokesperson wrote in an email, after the Bureau denied repeated requests for an interview.
“It’s astonishing to me that we have an FBI that acknowledges these white-supremacist police officers exist and they don’t have any plan to address it,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and current fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Or to protect the communities who they’re obligated to protect under the civil rights laws.”
In the speech that eventually got him fired, Doggrell spoke about the importance of recruiting police officers to the League of the South, and resisting the federal government’s interference in their communities. “Kith and kin comes before illegal national mandates,” he said.
When people in Anniston’s black community found out about Doggrell’s speech, “it was like another Ferguson in Anniston,” David Reddick, the city council member, said, referring to the mass protests that had shaken Ferguson, Missouri after a police officer there killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. “It had that feeling that it could break out at any moment.”
Two days after the SPLC’s report about Doggrell’s speech went viral, Anniston’s city manager fired him. (The other police officer who had joined the League, Wayne Brown, retired.) The department portrayed Doggrell’s case as an aberration, even though it had tolerated his ideology for years. “This anomaly should not end up characterising that department at all,” the mayor said. In response, Doggrell appealed his dismissal on the basis of wrongful termination, and filed a separate claim stating his free speech and religious rights had been violated. Both were denied; but his wrongful termination appeal is still pending with the circuit court of Calhoun County. The League of the South helped to raise between $10,000 and $15,000 to cover his legal fees.
The reason that extremist groups are allowed to exist in the US is because of the first amendment to the constitution, which ostensibly protects all citizens’ freedom of expression. In many European countries, the law prohibits membership of hate groups that express explicitly racist, neo-Nazi, antisemitic or homophobic views. The question in the US is whether free speech rights apply to law enforcement officers and other public servants in the same way as they do to private citizens.
In Anniston, many people saw Doggrell’s membership in the League as an extension of his rights. “There’s first-amendment issues that have to be addressed if you are going to terminate someone for being a member of that group,” said Bruce Downey, the attorney who defended the city against Doggrell’s lawsuit, when we met at his office in July. That Doggrell was within his constitutional rights to be both in the police department and in the League seemed to be accepted inside the department, too. At the 2015 hearing into Doggrell’s dismissal, Anniston’s police chief acknowledged he had seen content he considered “edgy at best” on Doggrell’s Facebook page, but he hadn’t taken any action. “Social media is an issue with all of our officers, I will tell you that,” he said. “We don’t make it a habit of monitoring. As a matter of fact, we don’t monitor.”
To others, however, the US’s full complement of free speech rights does not extend to law enforcement officers. “There are limitations on what government employees can do, especially where their speech implicates their ability to do their jobs properly,” said Chiraag Bains, the former senior counsel to the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “So, if they’re associating with a white supremacist group, it’s within the police department’s authority to say that the person cannot do that job.” Bains added that police officers are sworn to uphold the constitution, which promises equal treatment under the law to all Americans, regardless of race. The US court of appeals, too, has found that the “interest in maintaining a relationship of trust between the police and fire departments and the communities they serve” outweighs officers’ right to free expression.
Had the video of Doggrell’s speech never gone viral, though, it’s quite likely he would still be serving on the Anniston police force. Regardless of what the courts decide about officers’ free speech rights, it’s exceptionally difficult for private citizens to force local departments to take action against extremists within their ranks.
In the three years since President Trump has been in office, white supremacists have become increasingly emboldened. The deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, in which 600 far-right supporters clashed with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a “wake-up call” that white supremacist groups were resurgent, said the Anti-Defamation League. But despite the fact that white supremacists and far-right extremists have killed more people in the US in the last decade than adherents of any other ideology have, the Trump administration has done little to address the threat. Instead, it has reduced the federal oversight of white supremacist groups. Soon after taking office, Trump cut the Department of Homeland Security’s budget for terrorism prevention, which includes domestic terrorism, from $24m in 2017 to $3m today, according to the former Obama administration counterterrorism official Nate Snyder.
In 2018, attorney general Jeff Sessions – a former Alabama senator who once joked that he thought KKK members “were OK until I learned they smoked pot” – signed a memorandum that restricted the Justice Department’s ability to oversee troubled police departments, including the 14 that had agreed to be monitored under the Obama administration because of their records of racial discrimination and police abuse. “The misdeeds of individual bad actors,” Sessions wrote, “should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”
Earlier this year, the FBI revealed that it had changed its classification system for terrorism cases. While there were once 11 categories, including a specific one for white supremacy, the new list featured just four, including the catch-all “racially motivated violent extremism”. This change means it’s now harder to narrow down exactly what resources the FBI is putting toward the specific threat of white supremacy, including within police forces.
Yet when it comes to policing police officers for extremist ties, the FBI has not changed its policy since the civil rights era, said German, the former FBI agent. “Many of these cases end up resting on kind of weak grounds where it’s only if a person posts something on social media, or otherwise publicises their role in a way that damages the public perception of the police agency, that the agency can take action,” he added. “I’m more concerned about the guy who’s a white supremacist who is not making it public, and is perhaps engaged in behaviour on the job that is harming people on a daily basis.”
Still, it’s unclear whether greater federal oversight would actually solve the problem. “In theory it could help, but that means we would have to not have a broken democracy,” said Shepard of the activist group Stop Police Terror Project. “We’d have to have folks that would take the accountability measure seriously and I honestly at this point do not have faith in that happening for black people.” Mark Potok, from the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, made a similar point: “At this point, since the election of Trump, we’ve seen so many cases of strongly racist cops – it’s become even more imperative to put these departments on some kind of oversight from outside. And really, I’m talking about civilian review boards.”
In Anniston, things have mostly stayed the same since Doggrell was fired. After Doggrell’s termination, according to Reddick the police department began hiring more diverse staff. It also started requiring each of its officers to affirm in writing that he or she was “not a member of a group that will cause embarrassment to the City of Anniston or the Anniston police department”. But the council’s black leaders are still outnumbered, and the city is still divided. In July, a group of residents proposed redrawing the city limits to exclude Anniston’s black neighbourhoods.
A number of residents we spoke to in Anniston remained unsure of why exactly Doggrell had been fired. “I heard he was an exemplary police officer, in a biracial relationship, and no signs of racism,” one of the three white council members wrote in an email. (Doggrell is not in a biracial relationship and does not condone those who are.) Unprompted, during our interview, the lawyer Bruce Downey, who defended the city against Doggrell’s lawsuit, said he thought Doggrell was a “very intelligent guy and a deep thinker”.
To Anniston council member Ben Little, the city’s black residents are still fighting a similar battle to the one his enslaved ancestors fought – one that was not exclusively against the police department, but against the “racial backwardness” of a city that treated its minority population with “oppression and inequality”. Nobody in the community was surprised to find out that a member of the police force had belonged to a neo-Confederate group, he added. “They were only surprised that it was so bold and out there,” he said. “But we knew it all along.”
This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism