Efforts to root out Chicago police extremism have ‘fallen short’ of Mayor Johnson’s promises, watchdog says

Chicago’s watchdog agency has warned Mayor Brandon Johnson that efforts to root out extremism within the Chicago Police Department have “fallen short” of his campaign promise to fire officers with ties to the far-right.

The harsh criticism was included in an 18-page letter that Inspector General Deborah Witzburg’s office sent to Johnson calling for a coordinated response to “an issue of profound importance and pressing public concern.”

“Any ongoing mishandling of the matter puts CPD’s public public legitimacy at critical risk, and profoundly undermines its effectiveness by damaging the very public trust that the city and the department are endeavoring to foster,” Tobara Richardson, deputy inspector general for public safety, wrote on April 25.

Chicago cops have been tied to a range of far-right groups, including the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Ku Klux Klan, Richardson noted.

The letter came just a week before the police department announced that eight officers linked to the Oath Keepers wouldn’t be disciplined, even though six of them acknowledged signing up for the anti-government militia. It was the second time internal investigators closed a probe into officers’ ties to the Oath Keepers without finding any wrongdoing.

Witzburg has said her office is reviewing the findings of the latest investigation, launched after the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported on the misconduct records of cops tied to the Oath Keepers and detailed the department’s apparent tolerance for extremism.

Richardson urged the mayor to convene a task force “to plan for and implement a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to preventing, identifying and eliminating extremist and anti-government activities and associations within CPD.”

Unkept promises

The letter was shared with various city officials: Police Supt. Larry Snelling; Deputy Mayor for Community Safety Garien Gatewood; Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability President Anthony Driver; and alderpersons Christopher Taliaferro (29th) and Brian Hopkins (2nd), chairs of City Council committees that deal with policing matters.

Johnson had vowed to fire cops linked to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as a candidate, saying that “active involvement in domestic terrorist organizations should be grounds for immediate dismissal.”

Snelling later told City Council members that “it serves the Chicago Police Department in no way, in no way good, to have members amongst our department who are members of hate groups. And we will not tolerate it.”

However, Richardson said the city’s response to extremism hasn’t matched the rhetoric. “In practice, to date, the city’s handling of extremism in its police ranks has fallen short of these commitments,” she wrote.

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 Inspector General Witzburg and other critics have argued he should have been fired for lying about his involvement with the neo-fascist gang.

Another officer, Kyle Mingari, remains under investigation after he was pictured wearing a Three Percenters mask while working at a racial justice protest in 2020. Like other similar cases, Witzburg’s office pushed CPD to reopen the probe.

“Even where those investigations were reopened, their final outcomes failed to meet any appropriate standard for swift and clear accountability for conduct which renders CPD members unfit to serve,” Richardson said.

Watchdog calls for ‘an aggressive approach’

Richardson acknowledged that Driver’s panel has crafted a new policy that aims to bolster CPD’s ability to tackle extremism, but she said the department “has not in recent years taken an aggressive approach” to doing just that.

Some law enforcement agencies across the country have taken a tough approach. Richardson pointed to four separate disciplinary cases in New Jersey, Maryland, Louisiana and California, including two that resulted in the dismissal of law enforcement officials connected to the Proud Boys.

Witzburg has said that existing rules — including a prohibition against discrediting the department — can and should be used to go after extremist cops. In the past, Bakker and a group of officers linked to the KKK in the 1960s were both disciplined for violating that rule.

Officials must now “take a definitive and unequivocal position against extremism” that goes beyond the police disciplinary system, Richardson said, pointing to various measures that have been proposed and implemented elsewhere.

The Springfield Police Department has started asking applicants if they’ve joined or associated with extremist groups, Richardson said. And in Washington state, legislation requires police departments to ask applicants about associations with such groups and gives the state the power to pull extremist cops’ law enforcement credentials.

The Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group that monitors extremist groups, has issued a list of recommendations for law enforcement agencies, from training officers and conducting background checks to stressing “the inherent dangers of violent extremism” in codes of conduct.

“These examples are not necessarily a roadmap or a checklist, but they do make clear that there are opportunities across areas and processes … to combat extremist and anti-government associations and actives within CPD,” Richardson said.

She urged Johnson’s office to convene a task force of city officials and community stakeholders to address the issue, but said planning and coordination could also include policymakers and other law enforcement agencies.

In a statement, Inspector General Witzburg indicated her office hadn’t received a response in the nearly two months since the letter was sent.

“We look forward to the mayor’s office response and to working with our city government partners on this issue,” she said. “We will have more to say about this when we are ready to publish our work with the mayor’s office’s response.”

Spokespeople for the mayor and police department said they were reviewing the letter.

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