There is no national requirement that aspiring police officers be screened for hate group membership, a fact brought to light by a recent incident involving Florida police officers who were reportedly linked to the Ku Klux Klan, according to a confidential FBI report.
On Saturday, Florida’s Fruitland Park Police Chief Terry Isaacs was given a confidential FBI report containing allegations that a deputy chief and a former police officer had links to the KKK, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The report led to the resignation of Deputy Chief David Borst and the dismissal of officer George Hunnewell. Isaacs would not confirm the report specified the group as the KKK, describing it instead as a “subversive organization” because he was unauthorized to release details.
“It's unfortunately a very widespread phenomenon across the United States,” said Michael Novick, of the Los Angeles chapter of Anti-Racist Action (ARA). “You’d think there would be laws against this stuff, but there aren’t. There’s no law against being in the KKK and being an officer — though clearly it indicates a bias.”
Hiring is a decision left to each local police department, and in Florida there is no state-mandated screening process, Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said.
Although the KKK is considered a hate group by the U.S. government, it is not illegal to be a member of the group, and most police departments do not screen for such membership anyway, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups.
“I’m not sure what the exact remedy is,” Beirich said. “Of course they have to be fair to all races, but this brings up First Amendment issues.”
The center counted nearly 1,000 hate groups — defined as groups that have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people — in the U.S. in 2013. Florida and California are the states with the greatest number of hate groups.
Some arms of the government, including the military, do prohibit hate group members from joining, she said.
But for police forces, there are currently no national screening standards for officers that would prevent their hiring because of membership in a hate group, Beirich said. Such a screening process would have to be mandated through city, county or state-level legislation.
The Fruitland Park Police Department did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.
Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union said that "when dealing with public employment you have to take into account the right to association ... a constitutional right. Of course, once the person said or did something that indicates they are prepared to act out, on their job, some of the hateful principles and treat people differently based on race, then they have disqualified themselves from further employment."
Several decades ago, it was illegal to hire someone for public employment if they were a member of the communist party. Then the Supreme Court found that was unconstitutional, Simon added.
"While I understand the police chief's action ... firing these officers may not be what the respect for their constitutional rights requires. You have to think of the general legal principle that goes beyond this department, these officers' Klan membership."
Beirich said situations like that of Fruitland Park are rare, adding that in her 14 years at the center they had only had a couple of similar incidents. Another Fruitland Park police officer was found to be a member of the Klan in 2009.
“In every instance where it’s been exposed, they’ve been let go,” Beirich said. “Usually it causes problems for the officer because it calls into question everyone they’ve arrested and can open the door to lawsuits.”
But arguing that the problem is widespread, Novick said the investigation into police brutality in Los Angeles after the notorious beating of Rodney King exposed a potential problem with organized white supremacist groups within the police force. After King’s beating, black officers reported harassment they had experienced within the department including the use of Klan insignia.
Membership in an official hate group isn’t a prerequisite for racist crimes, Novick added, “More or less, the police are killing a black person almost every day in this country, whether or not they are members of a hate group.”