Inside The Dangerous Online Fever Swamps Of American Police

Cops have a far-right media ecosystem of their own, where they post racist memes, spread disinformation and call for violence against antifa.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

Around the time news broke on Monday afternoon that the New York City Police Department would disband plainclothes anti-crime units that had been tied to several high-profile police shootings, someone calling themselves “ltdad613” started a thread on Thee Rant, a police message board that purports to host current and former NYPD employees. “I wouldn’t want to be a [Commanding Officer] for the next few compstats,” ltdad613 wrote. “This is right from [New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio]. I feel for anybody still on the job.”

Elsewhere, the posts on Thee Rant were much darker. In one Monday thread, “dominop” wrote that “A Firing squad would be a good cure for ANTIFA!!!” Other users chimed in to say snipers or napalm might be more fitting.

Thee Rant is just one node in a wider web of right-wing police media. On similar message boards, in Facebook groups and on news sites such as Law Enforcement Today — a sort of Breitbart-like outlet written by and for police — there is a fervent narrative that police are under nonstop siege, and that antifa in particular is a constant threat.

This police media ecosystem is not necessarily a broad representation of what most cops believe. But inside this echo chamber, which has thousands of users and readers, extremist views dictate the narrative. Wild misinformation and bigotry are rampant, with people who claim to be current and former officers posting debunked falsehoods and racist stereotypes about protesters.

Intense public focus on police behavior in recent weeks, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has led to the termination of several law enforcement officers who posted conspiratorial or racist messages on their personal social media pages. When these posts are singled out for scrutiny and have a real officer’s name attached, opprobrium comes quickly, but most of those posts would be right at home in right-wing police media.

“What I think we have here is a market for this kind of racist and divisive garbage across the internet, and unfortunately police are participating in that wave that is witnessed across various professions,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “It pains me as a former NYPD officer to see this,” he said. “These posts are devastating.”

Levin doesn’t think people should assume that “cops en masse subscribe to this,” but he does see dangerous potential, because online echo chambers tend to “self-accelerate” bigoted beliefs. For “police in particular, who so often have to hold their tongue and try to restrain themselves,” he said, “online it becomes even more [of an] accelerant.”

The Extreme Views Of ‘Law Enforcement Today’

Law Enforcement Today claims to be the largest law enforcement-owned and -operated media company in America. It has repeatedly promoted far-right conspiracy theorists and authoritarian policies, particularly during the recent mass demonstrations against police violence.

Founded by Robert Greenberg, a Florida police captain who has called his outlet “a platform for the voice of law enforcement,” LET has more than 800,000 followers on Facebook and runs a syndicated radio show. Much of its content is provided by former or current police officers, and it offers paid memberships of $75 a year to gain access to “the patriotic content that the social media giants don’t want you to see.”

The site’s articles often bear only a passing resemblance to reality. Earlier this month, Law Enforcement Today published an article calling for the arrest of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, accusing him of aiding and abetting “antifa” terrorists. The post cited numerous far-right media activists, including anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer, and suggested that Democratic officials including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) are antifa sympathizers. It also baselessly attacked Tlaib and Omar, who are Muslim, as “arguably anti-Semites and ISIS supporters (if not in words, in actions).”

“Law Enforcement Today supports Laura [Loomer]’s demand that Dorsey be arrested and prosecuted for promoting an insurrection against the United States,” the article says. It also suggests that politicians such as Omar who have expressed support for the current protests against police brutality and systemic injustice should be arrested as well.

The article is published under the pseudonym “Sgt. A. Merica” and claims to be “written by several staff writers, including retired and wounded law enforcement officers.” Law Enforcement Today says it verifies the identity and background of its authors before publishing.

When it isn’t stirring fear of antifa, much of the site’s coverage focuses on law enforcement officers who have been harmed in the line of duty. It also regularly criticizes elected officials who are seeking to curb police powers, part of what the site calls a “war on law enforcement.” The consistent message is that police are perpetually under attack, and that the government — with the exception of President Donald Trump — does not have their back.

In recent weeks, rumors of antifa reaching small towns have created a kind of moral panic in some communities, leading to armed groups patrolling the streets. Law Enforcement Today has eagerly trafficked in these conspiracy theories. One LET article quotes a source purporting to be an anonymous Connecticut state trooper, who warns that riots in rural areas would be reminiscent of guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that “once they start moving into rural America, there will be a LOT of bloodshed.”

Another one of Law Enforcement Today’s recent articles is a far-right screed that claims the Black Lives Matter movement and antifa are using protests to “destroy America from the inside.” The piece echoes common white nationalist talking points: It blames the “radical left” for attacking “our Judeo-Christian heritage,” and claims that Western society faces an existential threat in part from “mass immigration from sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east.” LET tagged the article as one of its “must reads.”

The site also ran an article endorsing far-right congressional candidate Marjorie Greene, who in a campaign ad from early June warned “antifa terrorists” to stay out of her rural Georgia district ― while cocking a gun ― and who has spread a conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros is funding protesters. Greene has also voiced support for the far-right QAnon conspiracy movement. Facebook removed Greene’s ad from its platform for inciting violence.

Another Law Enforcement Today post promoted a Florida sheriff who responded to unfounded social media rumors of riots moving into small towns by encouraging homeowners to arm themselves and shoot people encroaching on their property. Multiple articles include tweets from QAnon conspiracy theorists.

False, incendiary claims about antifa have rocketed around the right-wing media ecosystem, from Twitter to Fox News and ultimately to the White House. Trump recently tweeted a baseless claim that Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old man who was seriously injured by police in Buffalo, New York, may have been an antifa instigator.

Greenberg, who founded Law Enforcement Today in 2007, is listed as a police captain with the Indian Creek Village Public Safety Department on its official website. It’s not exactly a rough-and-tumble job on the front lines of American policing. Indian Creek Village, Florida, is a tiny island enclave for the superrich that bills itself as “the world’s most exclusive municipality.” At the time of a Miami Herald report in 2014, it had only 86 residents, whose combined net worth exceeded $37 billion. Jay-Z and Beyoncé previously owned a home on the island. (Incidentally, Law Enforcement Today ran an article earlier this month opposing Apple Music’s support of Black Lives Matter and criticizing “cop-hater Beyoncé,” who was included in Apple’s playlist.)

The offices of the village public safety department and of its mayor did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment on whether they have any policy on conduct or work outside of the department, or about Greenberg’s current employment status. Law Enforcement Today did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Old-School Message Boards Breed Hatred And Racism

Thee Rant, formerly NYPD Rant, bills itself as a salon of “New York City Cops speaking their minds,” though often the extremist rhetoric on the site more closely resembles 4chan. Edward Polstein, who was fired from the NYPD in 2004, created the site to give verified members of the force — both current and former — an outlet to anonymously vent about their jobs without fear of retribution.

The message board is a cesspool of disinformation, bigoted memes and far-right propaganda, and regularly lights up with racist comments after publicized incidents of police brutality against people of color. Lately, users have been targeting protesters participating in the nationwide Black Lives Matter marches sparked by Floyd’s killing.

Thee Rant posts in the past three weeks have described Floyd as a “mutt” and a “worthless thug,” Black people as “Negroids” and “ghetto rats,” and protesters as “scum.” Various posts call for violence against protesters and spread debunked conspiracy theories that are often sourced to far-right media outlets, including Breitbart, One America News Network and The Federalist.

One post, referring to the recent arrest of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mixed-race daughter, Chiara, is titled “DeBlasswhole’s Junkie Daughter Collared.” Another, “White Men Stand Up To Negroid Thugs And Looters In Philly,” cheered on a group of bat-wielding white men who reportedly intimidated protesters and assaulted a journalist in Philadelphia. A June 5 post called “BUFFALO PD KNOCKDOWN IS A HOAX” claimed that a video of police officers violently shoving Gugino to the ground, causing him to bleed from his ears, was staged to make cops look bad.

Many other posts on Thee Rant praise Trump, and even entertain QAnon conspiracies.

For much of the forum’s decadeslong existence, members have only been able to sign up with valid NYPD IDs, meaning its content has come directly from New York law enforcement. HuffPost could not independently verify if this is still the case — a request to join the group has not been approved — but posters continue to demonstrate an intimate familiarity with the department, its operations and its officials.

Thee Rant has for years been a source of embarrassment to the NYPD, which has said it’s been unable to take action due to the users’ anonymity.

“We see it. It’s a problem,” Stephen Davis, at the time the chief spokesperson for the NYPD, told ProPublica of the message board in 2015. But, he added, “there are privacy issues involved. We can’t go and peel back email names and tags and try to find out who these people are.”

Thee Rant posters “represent the worst elements of the department,” veteran police reporter Leonard Levitt, who died last month, said at the time. “I don’t think they speak for the average cop.”

Polstein has claimed he was terminated in retaliation for creating Thee Rant, which has long criticized the NYPD and city officials. The department’s given reason for his firing is that he reneged on a retirement deal. The dispute led to a bitter lawsuit, and in a 2008 deal that granted Polstein his pension, he agreed to rename the forum from NYPD Rant to Thee Rant.

“I haven’t been part of [Thee Rant] in over 10 years,” Polstein told HuffPost in an email. “I don’t know who runs it now.”

Thee Rant “is not affiliated with the New York City Police Department,” Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, a spokesperson for the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, told HuffPost. She didn’t answer repeated questions about whether the NYPD has investigated the possibility of its officers using racist and extremist rhetoric on the site.

On similar message boards that also claim to exist for police conversation, such as Law Enforcement Rant, posters suggest that the NYPD should “assign Police Officers by their ethnicity,” putting “Black Officers in black neighborhoods.” They ridicule officers who’ve been photographed kneeling in solidarity with protesters, and complain about citizens filming officers in public. Although some posts show self-described police officers grappling with questions of racism and brutality, the majority are hateful and angry.

“I know cops are beat up, tired, angry, and hurt. But every time we do something it will be recorded and will be used to play against us,” one Law Enforcement Rant poster lamented in a recent thread about the clip of cops assaulting Gugino.

“I recall being at many protests and we could use necessary force. But times have changed,” wrote another. “[The Buffalo video] looks terrible, especially a 75 year old person that wasn’t actively resisting or has a weapon or was fighting us in any real way,” a third poster wrote. “Right now it’s all about optics and the PD is losing the propaganda battle.”

Facebook’s Cop Communities

Social media sites are another place where law enforcement officers can find each other and talk about modern policing — and, lately, post a torrent of false and unsubstantiated antifa-related information. In many large pro-cop groups and pages on Facebook, people have been gleefully exchanging videos of “antifa” protesters getting beaten, and threatening to publish the personal information of supposed antifa activists. Many such pages and groups claim to be operated by police, although it’s unclear how many members are actually law enforcement officers.

A search for the term “antifa” in Back The Blue, a Facebook group with more than 60,000 members, yields dozens of recent results, including a blog post baselessly accusing Gugino of being a “professional agitator and Antifa provocateur” — another early example of police media circulating a conspiracy theory that the president would later share on Twitter to swift condemnation.

Posters in the Facebook group Law Enforcement Family, which claims to have been “developed by law enforcement officers” and has more than 53,000 members, perpetuate racist stereotypes about Black people and call cops who kneel with protesters “pussies.” Those in Brothers Before Others have been sharing entirely unsourced data about gang violence in Black communities and spreading debunked claims about antifa.

U.S. Law Enforcement, a page that claims to be run “by several current and retired US Law Enforcement Officers,” has also spread false information to its nearly 500,000 followers. It posted a screenshot of a tweet from what appeared to be an antifa account claiming that antifa would “move into the residential areas… the white hoods…. and we take what’s ours.” But as Twitter quickly noted, a white supremacist group posing as antifa activists was actually behind that account. The U.S. Law Enforcement page has since acknowledged that the tweet was debunked, and suggested this happened because the Twitter account “may not have been ‘official.’” Yet it has not removed the false post from its page.

‘We Can’t Have That In Policing Today’

American police officers have already been tied to the spread of extremist content on social media. A Reveal News investigation last June found that hundreds of active-duty and retired officers, from every level of U.S. law enforcement, had quietly joined private Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia Facebook groups full of racist memes and conspiracy theories.

The investigation was a rare glimpse at the culture behind the blue wall. As Reveal News noted, disciplinary records and investigations into police misconduct “are kept secret in a majority of states, meaning most American cops enjoy a blanket of protection that can cover up biases.”

But the recent unrest has provoked some law enforcement officials to openly broadcast their tolerance for police misconduct online, outside of these closed or little-known groups. In a Facebook post earlier this month, the Brevard County, Florida, chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police offered to rehire police officers from other areas who are charged with using excessive force against protesters.

“Lower taxes, no spineless leadership, or dumb mayors rambling on at press conferences,” promised the now-deleted Facebook post, for which Brevard County FOP President Bert Gamin has claimed responsibility. “Plus.... we got your back!”

Certainly not all police officers believe the wild stories pushed by Law Enforcement Today and circulated on pro-police social media groups. But right-wing media and many police labor leaders are heavily invested in the idea of presenting police as hard-right defenders of law and order.

Outlets such as Fox News and OAN often provide a safe space for former officers and labor officials to defend law enforcement’s conduct without challenge. One such voice has been police union leader Ed Mullins, head of the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association, who in February announced the NYPD was “declaring war” on de Blasio and accused the mayor of fomenting anti-cop sentiment. Mullins has recently appeared on Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity’s shows, as well as far-right outlets Newsmax and OAN, where he called for military support to quell the protests.

Levin, from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, said police and city officials nationwide need to pay attention to what some cops are reading and writing online, and get a handle on it.

“We can’t have that in policing today,” he said. “We’re now in an era where police are so detached from many segments of the community that they serve that we don’t have the luxury of having this kind of garbage being tolerated within departments.”

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