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Civil rights group urges Chicago mayor, top cop to more closely address officers linked to Oath Keepers

A major civil rights organization sent a letter Tuesday urging Mayor Brandon Johnson and his hand-picked police superintendent to conduct a more thorough investigation into police officers linked to the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that was at the center of the riots at the United States Capitol on January 6. 2021.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s letter pushes Johnson and the police superintendent. Larry Snelling reconsiders the decision not to take disciplinary action against eight officers associated with the Oath Keepers, six of whom admitted during an internal investigation to having joined the group.

The letter was also signed by a group of Johnson’s allies: Progressive councilors Desmon Yancy (fifth); Byron Sigcho-López (25th); Jessie Fuentes (26th); Rossana Rodríguez (33rd); and Carlos Ramírez Rosa (35th). David Cherry, president of The Leaders Network, also signed it.

The recent investigation was launched in October after WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Project published a joint investigation that revealed a history of misconduct by police officers linked to the Oath Keepers and detailed the department’s tolerance for the extremism.

The letter notes that many of the officers admitted joining between 2009 and 2013 “when the Oath Keepers were one of the most active and combative anti-government extremist groups operating in the United States.”

At the time, the Oath Keepers feared that the U.S. government “was moving the world toward a one-world government” or a new world order, an extremist conspiracy theory with “anti-Semitic overtones,” the letter states.

“In response to this fear, the Oath Keepers encouraged their members to disobey laws that do not conform to their false interpretation of the United States Constitution and the Second Amendment,” according to the letter.

However, police investigators “simply asked officers about their own perception of the Oath Keepers and whether they had disobeyed orders, but did not explore evidence that could have been obtained from other officers or witnesses in the community to verify or counter these statements,” the letter states. .

It calls for greater transparency “before the Democratic National Convention brings greater scrutiny to the city and its police force,” stating that Johnson, Snelling and other city officials “must commit to building trust with communities right now and give the welcome to a public hearing on this issue.” .”

It also urges Snelling to comply with any recommendations Inspector General Deborah Witzburg makes after reviewing the investigation.

The mayor’s office and police department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The letter criticizes the police department’s “historical mishandling” of extremism, specifically singling out Officer Robert Bakker, a Proud Boys associate who was able to keep his job after lying about his association with the neo-fascist group.

In a scathing letter from January 2023, the law center sharply criticized then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the then-superintendent. David Brown for keeping Bakker on the force.

The new letter does not explicitly call for the firing of officers linked to the Oath Keepers, even though Mayor Johnson promised during the election campaign to fire any police officer linked to the group.

After the department announced that the Oath Keepers investigation had been closed earlier this month, Johnson doubled down on his campaign promise but appeared unfamiliar with the case’s findings.

“Supervisor. Snelling is very committed and capable of leading this department, and if there are people who are sworn to serve and protect, if they come down to that type of ideology or affiliation, then yes, I still maintain my position that those people “Should not receive the honor to wear the insignia of the Chicago Police Department,” Johnson said at a press conference with Snelling on May 3.

Officers Alberto Retamozo, Dennis Mack, John Nicezyporuk and Bienvenido Acevedo and Detectives Anthony Keany and Alexander Kim admitted to joining the Oath Keepers, but stated that their interactions with the group were limited.

Officer Matthew Bracken told investigators that he had given his personal information to the group as a first step in joining, but never went further. Sergeant. Michael Nowacki claimed that he never became an Oath Keeper, but admitted that he had received “hundreds” of emails from the group.

Investigators with the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau said most of the accused officers viewed the Oath Keepers as “a pro-Second Amendment, pro-Constitution group.”

A ninth officer who remains on the force, Phillip Singto, was previously investigated and cleared of wrongdoing, despite also admitting that he had signed up for Oath Keepers at some point.

That previous investigation also focused on Officer Christopher Hoffman, a former member of the scandal-plagued Special Operations Section who retired before he could be interviewed.

During the recent investigation, Keany and Kim told investigators that they had been recruited by Hoffman, whom Kim described as “one of the leading supporters of the Oath Keepers organization.”

Kim also said he met with other Chicago police officers linked to the group, “but never for the purpose of talking about the Oath Keepers.”

Perhaps most alarming, Acevedo said he remembered being recruited for the group during training for the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. He told investigators that “several officers he did not remember were passing out the Oath Keepers pamphlet.”

Tim Grace, a lawyer who represented many of the officers, insisted to investigators that police officers have a “right to join an organization … if it does not interfere with their actions as police officers.”

The department seemed to agree with that statement. The researchers noted that “membership in organizations in itself is not a violation of the rules,” referencing the conclusion of Oath Keepers’ previous investigation.

The latest investigation was launched before a new department order went into effect in January, which explicitly prohibited officers from interacting with hate and extremist groups. That policy goes so far as to prohibit a member of the department from “liking” an extremist group’s posts on social media.

For his part, Snelling supported the investigation, made the results public and invited Witzburg’s office to examine the case.

“Before assuming that these individuals were proven to be part of a hate group, let’s look at the entire investigation,” Snelling said at the news conference with Johnson. “And let’s not fool anyone into thinking this is related to January 6, because it’s not.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s politics and government team. Tom Schuba is criminal justice editor for the Sun-Times.