The Legacy of Race

Police Brutality Brought Early Alabama Reckoning. Nation Faces Similar Questions Now.

Birmingham Police officers monitor for possible trouble during a protest in the city this summer. (Photo by Tom Gordon)

The Alabama of the 1960s enters the history books represented by police officers such as Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, a segregationist who directed violence toward blacks in 1963, and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, overseer of beatings of marchers during Bloody Sunday in1965 Selma.

In 2020, the broader nation finds itself reckoning with protests rooted in mistrust of police officers, and controversy seems relatively quieter close to home. Nationwide, some departments and officers are cracking down on demonstrators. The president has wanted to mobilize the U.S. Army to meet marchers. Evidence has surfacing that some American police officers are connected to white supremacist organizations.

There were some protests and arrests locally. For example, fewer than 30 people were arrested May 31 after a series of disturbances in downtown Birmingham with no fatalities. That’s smaller than the scale of protests in other parts of the country, and no present-day equivalents of Connor or Clark lead official resistance. The way things differ in the Birmingham area today partly stands as a legacy of racial conflicts in Alabama’s past.

“I think what you’ve seen is there was a concerted effort across multiple chiefs of police in Birmingham and multiple mayors across time in Birmingham,” said Dr. Jeff Walker, chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“The police chiefs, the mayors, the citizens, the culture, everything — it was like, ‘We have to overcome this. We can’t keep doing this.’ And they worked very, very, very hard to change the culture of the police in Birmingham, particularly in (the city of) Birmingham and in Jefferson County, … to be more … understanding of people and to try to treat everybody with a level of dignity and a level of police professionalism that you’re not seeing in other places,” Walker said.

Birmingham still strives to improve its police force in 2020, and a task force report expected to be released in December is aimed at further public safety reforms. But the city has traveled a long way to get to the present situation.

A Checkered Past

A study by Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project documented more than 100 Blacks killed by white police officers in Jefferson County from 1932 to 1968, and it points to the influence of one man: Connor.

“Birmingham is infamously the city whose Commissioner of Public Safety in 1963 set police dogs on demonstrating children. Flashed on television screens across the world were shocking images of youngsters locked up in the Birmingham jail because they participated in civil rights marches. Bull Connor’s reign did not, however, commence in the 1960s. His lethal hatred of black people can be evinced in the less dramatic but far more routine killings of black men by police officers under his control in the 1940s and 1950s,” the CRRJ report said.

“These were both policy choices: the dogs were meant to teach a lesson and quell a movement, whereas the shooting deaths of black men a decade or so earlier were intended to deflate black resistance and economic aspirations.

“The story of the Birmingham civil rights movement circles back to the protests against police brutality that were waged in the 1940s and 50s, and the police killings that are so prominent today are in many ways similar to the slayings discussed in this Report,” CRRJ noted.

CRRJ Director Margaret Burham said, “Most Americans know of Bull Connor’s brutality from the photographs of police dogs chasing Black kids in the streets of Birmingham in 1963. But he had an equally violent past. This report brings that to life.”

Bull Connor 1960

While Connor’s name has become synonymous with racially biased policing, it didn’t start with him. There are well-documented connections between white supremacy and the early history of American policing, and those connections still shape police-community interactions today, according to the CRRJ report.

“The experience of trauma stemming from historical racial violence has been passed down from generation to generation, and its impact is still felt in the present. Moreover, although there have been substantial improvements in law enforcement practices in the contemporary era, minority communities continue to be victimized by police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration.”

Other sources connect the dots between early police practice and white supremacist efforts at maintaining control over blacks going back to before the U.S. was a nation.

“Policing in the early American colonies was often less about crime control than maintaining the racial social order, ensuring a stable labor force, and protecting the property interests of the white privileged class. Slave patrols were among the first public policing organizations formed in the American colonies,” according to a report by Michael German, a fellow with the Liberty & National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

“Put simply, white supremacy was the law these earliest public officials were sworn to enforce,” Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement states. “Even states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that banned slavery enacted racist ‘Black laws,’ which restricted travel and denied civil rights regarding voting, education, employment, and even residency for free Black people.”

The Brennan Center report cites “The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1,” written by Dr. Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University. Potter notes that “The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the Slave Patrol,” and that “slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.

“Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system,” Potter wrote.

In the period since slavery, there have been times when, “In some locations in the South, all of the local authorities, including the sheriff, were members of the [Klan],” according to research cited by Castle.

In Alabama during the 1960s it was well known that members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations were also members of local police and sheriff’s offices.

“Because many of Alabama’s law enforcement agents either belonged to the Klan or purposely ignored the group’s violence, the Klan acted without fear of prosecution,” according to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

“In 1961, Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used the Ku Klux Klan to coordinate assaults upon the Freedom Riders as they travelled through Alabama,” an entry stated.

An earlier BirminghamWatch story explains how Birmingham moved on from the Connor era. But policing hasn’t entirely moved on from white supremacist ties.

White Supremacists, Still a Police Problem

Ongoing efforts by white supremacist organizations to worm their way into modern police departments have been noted by federal law enforcement.

“White supremacist leaders and groups have historically shown an interest in infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel,” a 2006 FBI report, “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement,” states. The same report says that, “Since coming to law enforcement attention in late 2004, the term ‘ghost skins’ has gained currency among white supremacists to describe those who avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes … . Such role-playing has application to ad hoc and organized law enforcement infiltration.”

On Sept. 29, that FBI report was released in unredacted form by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the chairman of the subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, during a subcommittee hearing on “infiltration of white supremacist views and networks in local law enforcement.”

“The FBI saw long ago the multiple potential dangers associated with violent white supremacy and its efforts to infiltrate local law enforcement with ideas, attitudes and personnel,” Raskin said in releasing the report. “Unfortunately, the FBI’s recent refusal to acknowledge and combat this threat under the Trump Administration — just like its refusal to appear today — constitutes a serious dereliction of duty. The infiltration of certain law enforcement departments … is a clear and present danger to the vast majority of law-abiding officers, to minority communities and citizens, and to the general public.”

The Brennan Center also has pointed out the white supremacist connections to law enforcement.

“Explicit racism in law enforcement takes many forms, from membership or affiliation with violent white supremacist or far-right militant groups, to engaging in racially discriminatory behavior toward the public or law enforcement colleagues, to making racist remarks and sharing them on social media,” the report said. “While it is widely acknowledged that racist officers subsist within police departments around the country, federal, state and local governments are doing far too little to proactively identify them, report their behavior to prosecutors who might unwittingly rely on their testimony in criminal cases, or protect the diverse communities they are sworn to serve.”

A recent news report shows that Kentucky State Police were trained for several years with a slideshow that repeatedly quoted Adolph Hitler and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and promoted the idea that officers should pursue using violence in encounters with the public. A 2010 interview in Newsweek, in which Stewart Rhodes, leader of the Oath Keepers — which the Brennan Center describes as a far-right militant group — said he had 6,000 members, including active and retired police officers.

A 2019 investigation by Reveal, a publication of the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that “Hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the United States are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.”

The Reveal article said: “These cops have worked at every level of American law enforcement, from tiny, rural sheriff’s departments to the largest agencies in the country, such as the Los Angeles and New York police departments. They work in jails and schools and airports, on boats and trains and in patrol cars. And … they also read and contribute to groups such as “White Lives Matter” and ‘Death to Islam Undercover.’

“Almost 150 of the officers we found are involved with violent anti-government groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters,” the article said.

According to the Brennan Center report, law enforcement response at some protests reflects the dangers of ignoring white supremacist strains in police departments:

  • “The police response to nationwide protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 includes a number of officers across the country flaunting their affiliation with far-right militant groups. A veteran sheriff’s deputy monitoring a Black Lives Matter protest in Orange County, California, was photographed wearing patches with logos of the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers — far-right militant groups that often challenge the federal government’s authority — affixed to his bulletproof vest.”
  • “A 13-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department is under investigation after photographs surfaced that showed him wearing a face covering with a Three Percenters’ logo while on duty at a protest, though a supervisor was pictured with him at the scene and apparently did not complain.”
  • “In Salem, Oregon, a police officer was recorded on video asking heavily armed white men dressed like militia to step inside a building or sit in their cars while the police arrested protesters for failing to comply with curfew orders, ‘so we don’t look like we’re playing favorites.’ After a public outcry, the Salem police chief apologized for the appearance of favoritism, but determined the officer was only trying to gain the militants’ compliance with the curfew.”
  • “A police officer in Olympia, Washington, was placed under investigation for posing in a photograph with a heavily armed militia group called Three Percent of Washington.”
  • “In Philadelphia, police officers stood by and failed to intervene when mostly white mobs armed with bats, clubs and long guns attacked journalists and protesters.
  • Looking at police responses to public protests in recent years, Castle, the James Madison professor, concluded that “local and federal law enforcement consistently trivialized the presence of white power groups in the community, elevated the potential threat from protestors, concentrated intelligence efforts on activists and provided differential protection to white supremacists.”

Siege Mentality

According to Walker at UAB, some of that might be akin to a siege mentality.

“You have to appreciate there is a difference between police being white supremacist and trying to be in a white supremacist organization and the fact that, for good or bad, the police feel like they’re under attack from many of the organizations that the protesters are involved with,” Walker said. “So they’re reacting negatively in many of those circumstances — and I’m not taking up for them, just telling you what they’re doing. They’re reacting negatively in those circumstances toward those people. They’re singling them out. They’re not treating them with the same respect that they are other people. … the police that are doing that feel they’re kind of at war with the left-wing movements.”

Jeff Walker, chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (Source: UAB)

Walker, along with the Brennan Center report, said the number of police officers who actually are acting out white supremacist ideology is likely limited.

“Obviously, only a tiny percentage of law enforcement officials are likely to be active members of white supremacist groups,” the Brennan Center report said. But it also pointed out that “Since 2000, law enforcement officials with alleged connections to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities have been exposed in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and elsewhere. … These officers’ racist activities are often known within their departments but only result in disciplinary action or termination if they trigger public scandals.”

As one of many cases in point, the Brennan Center report pointed to a well-publicized situation involving Anniston Police officers Lt. Josh Doggrell and Lt. Wayne Brown, both of whom were or are members of the League of the South, an organization advocating southern secession and a society under the control of “European Americans.”

The report said city officials learned of Doggrell’s membership in 2009. “The police chief, however, determined that the officer’s membership in the group did not affect his performance and allowed him to remain on the job. In the following years the officer was promoted to sergeant and eventually lieutenant. It wasn’t until 2015, after the Southern Poverty Law Center published an article about a speech he had given at a League of the South conference in which he discussed his recruiting efforts among other law enforcement officers, that the police department fired him.”

The report said Brown had attended the same League of the South rally and was allowed to retire.

The Anniston case ostensibly led to reforms in the department. “The Anniston Police Department and city officials knew about these officers’ problematic involvement in a racist organization for years, but it took public pressure to finally compel action,” the report stated. “The department then implemented a policy requiring police officers to sign a statement affirming that they are not members of ‘a group that will cause embarrassment to the City of Anniston or the Anniston police department.’”

The dangers of white supremacy as an undercurrent of American policing should not be underestimated, Raskin said in his subcommittee hearing earlier this year.

“If local or state law enforcement were being infiltrated by ISIS or by Al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist group, we would consider it an immediate public safety emergency. Infiltration by violent white supremacy is no less of a threat and no less urgent.”

The Way Forward

Healing the rifts that exist between police and communities of color will require changes in police culture, Walker said, noting that, in cases where law enforcement leadership made it a priority, conditions improved.

“That’s what you’re seeing in Birmingham,” Walker said. “Over the course of time, Birmingham police have worked very, very, very hard to change that culture and to make sure that people are being treated with the police professionalism and the officers are behaving in a manner that is consistent with the professionalism that they want to promote.”

Walker said that many departments around the country are working on fixing what’s broken in the way they and the public interact. There are departments investing in better training, teaching officers to de-escalate tense situations in hopes of resulting in less violent outcomes, for instance. And there are efforts at accountability, for example, more departments requiring that officers wear body cameras.

Walker believes that improving professionalism can rebuild trust between officers and those they police. And he believes that’s a much more realistic proposition for the future than trying to “defund” the police.

“Those kinds of things, the defunding of the police … . It’s just not practical,” Walker said. “You can’t do that. What they’re really trying to say …. is what police professionals and police researchers have been saying for a long time — is that we need change. Yes, we need crisis intervention teams. We don’t need a social worker with every police officer on call, but we need somebody who can deal with people in crisis, because police deal with people in crisis all the time.”

Improving policing means training officers to have more skills in dealing with people in crisis, he said

“Here’s the reality: Some police agencies are going to continue to change, continue to professionalize, continue to be close to the community and act in a professional manner and have the respect of the community. And then you’re going to have other agencies that aren’t. That’s just our reality. But the more we can push for, especially (in) the larger agencies, … the better off we’re going to be.”

Sidebar: Police Can Be Targets of Extremists

This is the second piece in a package on policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about new policing practices aimed at reducing the risk of bias on the job, the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks.

Previously in the The Legacy of Race: Policing

Dogs, Firehoses Were a Precursor to Today’s Violent Protests