The interim commission that oversees the Chicago Police Department unanimously urged Inspector General Deborah Witzburg on Thursday to investigate officers with ties to hate groups and far-right extremist organizations. The move comes as the commission works to develop new rules explicitly banning officers from associating with such groups.
President Anthony Driver Jr. told WTTW News before the meeting of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability that the decision should not be interpreted as a rebuke of CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs or its leader, Chief Yolanda Talley. The bureau has investigated at least two officers for ties to extremist groups and recommended no discipline.
The inspector general’s office has both the legal authority to investigate how CPD responds to evidence that members of the department belong to criminal or extremist organizations and to investigate individual officers for misconduct. The inspector general’s new inquiry will focus on the department’s response to the threat of extremism, Witzburg told WTTW News.
“We are very pleased to partner with the commission,” Witzburg said. “It is hard to imagine a more serious issue in police oversight right now.”
The police department must address the issue of extremism in its ranks, Witzburg said.
“Chicago has to get this right,” Witzburg said.
Driver said the commission acted because the issue threatens to derail efforts by city officials to restore the public’s trust in the beleaguered Police Department, which has faced decades of scandals, misconduct and brutality.
“We need an independent probe, conducted by a neutral party,” Driver said.
Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling vowed Tuesday to rid the Chicago Police Department of officers with ties to hate groups and far-right extremist organizations after “stringent” and “thorough” investigations.
Driver said he was pleased to hear that commitment from the city’s top cop, which came in response to a series of stories by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ-FM revealing that the names of nine Chicago Police Department members appeared in leaked rosters for the Oath Keepers, an anti-government extremist group.
Talley said the new probes announced by Snelling would take approximately six months.
However, it is not clear that the ongoing probe will result in any of the officers being terminated or punished. For a full year, City Council members, civil rights groups and police reform advocates have been enraged and baffled by what they see as the department’s halting response to evidence of extremism in its ranks.
After Snelling’s commitment to rid CPD of officers with ties to extremist groups, Talley told City Council that until the recent series of stories, CPD brass had no evidence indicating that any officers had ties to the Oath Keepers.
But that is not true, according to WBEZ and the Sun-Times, which obtained a copy of a letter sent to police leaders in August 2022 by the Anti-Defamation League that identified eight Chicago cops with ties to the Oath Keepers. Reporters’ questions about that letter prompted a new inquiry into those officers, according to the report.
In October 2022, police brass rejected a recommendation from Witzburg to terminate an officer who lied about his ties to the far-right Proud Boys extremist group. Instead, that officer served a 120-day suspension.
During an October 2022 hearing before the City Council’s Budget Committee, Talley told the Chicago City Council the probe of the officer’s conduct and statements was hampered by the fact that the group was not designated a hate group by the FBI.
The FBI does not identify domestic groups as hate or extremist groups, according to an agency spokesperson.
In January, police brass rejected another recommendation from Witzburg to terminate an officer who admitted belonging to the Oath Keepers. That officer remains on active duty with the CPD and earns nearly $109,000 annually, according to a city database.
During that probe, the Chicago Police Department officer “admitted to being a former member of the Oath Keepers, having joined in 2010 or 2011 and having been a member for three to four years,” according to the inspector general’s report.
Despite that, department officials closed the probe finding that the allegation was “not sustained” even though the officer admitted belonging to an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the nation’s best-known civil rights organizations, considers to be a “far-right anti-government group.”
Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers participated in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, and leaders of both groups have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Membership in extremist organizations like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys constitutes a violation of CPD policy, Witzburg said.
The commission, which has the power to set policy for the Chicago Police Department, is crafting a policy that would expand the types of “criminal” organizations that officers are prohibited from belonging to or associating with, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.
A vote to adopt that policy is scheduled for next month, Driver said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has called on Chicago officials to “adopt clear and unambiguous policies and procedures prohibiting city employees from actively associating with hate and extremist groups.”