Probe Into 8 CPD Officers Found No Evidence They Were Active Members of Oath Keepers — But Investigators Only Asked Them

Chicago Police Department Headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)Chicago Police Department Headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)

A probe into eight Chicago police officers who appeared on a leaked Oath Keepers membership list found no evidence they “actively participated” in the far-right, anti-government extremist group, according to an investigatory report released late Friday by the Chicago Police Department.

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“As with all investigations, (Bureau of Internal Affairs) conducted a detailed investigation into the allegations of CPD officers being members of the Oath Keepers organization,” a CPD spokesperson said in a statement. “Following this thorough investigation by (Bureau of Internal Affairs), it was determined that the allegations against the accused members were not sustained. This determination was made following interviews with the accused members and based on the evidence available. The information learned during this investigation does not indicate the accused members actively participated in or attended any events related to the Oath Keepers organization.”

However, investigators with CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs did not interview anyone other than the eight officers accused of belonging to the Oath Keepers, according to the 30-page report. Interviewing the officers appears to be the most significant investigative step taken by investigators during the probe, which was completed in less than six months.

The eight officers were each questioned by investigators for an average of 29 minutes, according to the summary of those interviews included in the report. The longest interview lasted 48 minutes, the shortest just 17 minutes, according to the probe.

All but one of those sessions included a statement from an attorney representing the officers objecting to the probe as a violation of the officers’ First Amendment rights and disputing the characterization of the Oath Keepers as a “domestic terrorism organization” before the officer spoke directly to investigators.

Read the full report.

The officers were ordered to turn over all documents they had about the Oath Keepers, but only one officer said they had any to provide. That officer said he searched his email’s spam folder and found emails dating back to 2016 and 2018.

Hours before the report was released, Chicago police Supt. Larry Snelling defended the probe to reporters at an unrelated news conference. Since 2022, it is the third investigation into officers with documented ties to far-right extremist groups to end without any of the officers being disciplined.

“I can tell you that we have reached out to everyone, our internal affairs division has reached out to everyone, to gather information to determine if these officers were actually proven to be members of hate groups,” Snelling said.

A CPD spokesperson could not explain the apparent contradiction between Snelling’s statement that “everyone” had been contacted as part of the investigation, when the only interviews documented in the report were conducted with the eight officers facing discipline.

In addition, the probe gathered no evidence that supported the officers’ claim that they joined the Oath Keepers because it advocated for gun rights and the U.S. Constitution before quickly losing interest, according to the report.

The probe was opened on Oct. 24, 2023, one day after Snelling promised the Chicago City Council’s Budget Committee that he would rid the Chicago Police Department of officers with ties to hate groups and far-right extremist organizations after “stringent” and “thorough” investigations.

Snelling promised to open a new probe after the first in a series of stories by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ, published on Oct. 22, 2023, revealed that the names of nine Chicago Police Department members appeared in leaked rosters for the Oath Keepers.

However, CPD brass had known since Aug. 8, 2022, that the names of eight Chicago police officers appeared on Oath Keeper membership lists, when First Deputy Chief Eric Carter received a letter from the Anti-Defamation League — an organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism — identifying the officers.

Carter served as the interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department from mid-March to mid-May 2023, when he abruptly resigned. Carter replaced former Supt. David Brown, who quit after Mayor Brandon Johnson was elected.

It is unclear why Carter took no action on the letter from the Anti-Defamation League.

One of the people named in that letter could not be identified as a Chicago police officer, while WBEZ and the Sun-Times named two other officers whose names appeared on the Oath Keepers’ membership list. Two of the officers had already been probed for their ties to the Oath Keepers — one has since left the department while the other was cleared over the objections of Inspector General Deborah Witzburg.

Several of the officers told investigators during those February interviews that they learned about the Oath Keepers more than a decade ago from other officers or while they served in the military, a pattern documented by the Anti-Defamation League in a report examining the threat posed by members of far-right, anti-government groups in positions of power in police departments and the military.

The officers said they joined the Oath Keepers to get a discount on shooting competitions or after being asked to do so by friends or colleagues in the military and CPD. Others said they joined because they supported the group’s public effort to expand the right to own guns and widen the protection offered by the Second Amendment, according to the probe.

One officer said he signed up for the Oath Keepers after learning about it from other officers while training to respond to the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, but never actively participated in the group, according to the probe.

Several officers said they got stickers and pocket-size copies of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights for joining the Oath Keepers, but never participated in the group’s activities.

One officer said he paid $50 per month for a few months between 2009 and 2012 to belong to the Oath Keepers, before allowing his membership to lapse because the organization did not appear active.

All of the officers told investigators they did not disobey a direct order from their supervisor because it was in conflict with the Oath Keepers oath.

None said they currently belonged to the Oath Keepers, whose members participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection. Leaders of the group have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.

Snelling called it “misleading” Friday to connect the probe into Chicago police officers’ ties with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers to Jan. 6, saying the probe started “before Jan. 6.” However, the probe CPD officials said on Thursday had been closed without disciplinary action began in October, nearly three years after the insurrection.

It is unclear whether Snelling’s remarks were based on the fact that the officers apparently belonged to the Oath Keepers years before the insurrection shone a spotlight on the group’s anti-government beliefs.

The Oath Keepers is considered by the FBI to be a “large but loosely organized collection of individuals, some who are associated with militias” who have vowed to “not obey unconstitutional (and thus illegal) and immoral orders.”

All of the officers probed said they joined the Oath Keepers without much thought or consideration, did not remember how much they paid in dues to the organization or how long they belonged to the organization, according to the probe.

The eight officers have been the subject of 74 complaints. Five of those complaints were sustained, resulting in discipline, according to a database of complaints against officers compiled by the Invisible Institute.

Witzburg, the city’s watchdog, has twice found investigations conducted by CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs to be lacking, and demanded they be reopened.

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.

Witzburg said CPD brass could have fired that officer, who has returned to active duty and earns more than $100,000 annually, because he lied to investigators, regardless of whether he belonged to the Proud Boys. Department leaders declined to follow her recommendation.

In January, police brass rejected a separate recommendation from Witzburg to terminate one of the officers on the membership rolls 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.

Witzburg has told police and city leaders that membership in extremist organizations like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys constitutes a violation of CPD policy that could warrant termination. Department leaders declined to follow that recommendation.

Had Snelling accepted Witzburg’s interpretation of CPD policy, he could have recommended that all of the officers who admitted joining the Oath Keepers while a member of the Chicago Police Department be disciplined or fired.

On Friday, Johnson referred to the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys as “unconscionable hate groups” and pledged to do “additional research” into the issue, but acknowledged that there are “very few courses of action that can be taken” if investigators do not gather evidence of wrongdoing by the officers.

Johnson praised Snelling for being “very intentional” about “paying attention to individuals who are bad actors who have displayed reprehensible behavior.”

During the 2023 campaign for mayor, Johnson vowed to fire officers tied to far-right extremist groups. Johnson said Friday he stands by that promise but said officers can only be disciplined after an investigation that follows CPD rules.

It is unclear whether Johnson agrees with Witzburg that membership in extremist organizations like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys constitutes a violation of CPD policy that could lead to termination.

In his remarks to reporters, Snelling invited Witzburg to examine the probe and “give us feedback.”

Under city ordinance, Witzburg has the authority to ask the Bureau of Internal Affairs to reopen investigations she determines were lacking in rigor or were incomplete.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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