White and far-right extremists kill more cops, but FBI tracks black extremists more closely, many worry

A demonstrators carrying signs protesting racism in Los Angeles last August, when many rallied to condemn racism in the wake of the deadly events in Charlottesville, Va.
A demonstrators carrying signs protesting racism in Los Angeles last August, when many rallied to condemn racism in the wake of the deadly events in Charlottesville, Va. AP

White supremacist and other far-right extremist groups have killed 51 police officers since 1990, according to a report published by the Anti-Defamation League last week. Left-wing extremist groups, including black nationalists, killed 11 during the same period.

In 2017 alone, black nationalists and other leftists killed no police, while white supremacists and anti-government extremists fatally attacked a police officer and two corrections officers, the report said.

But while the FBI tracks so-called “black identity extremists” as domestic terror threats — as an FBI counterterrorism report completed in August and leaked in October revealed — it doesn’t have an equivalent designation for white extremists.

Experts worry that the broad labeling of black groups, and not white ones, is an indication that federal law enforcement’s targeting of certain groups is based less on evidence than on politics.

That targeting can significantly affect how law enforcement chooses to police protests or events organized by specific groups. Many worry the report on black identity extremists specifically could be used to home in on members of Black Lives Matter – possibly infringing on their right to speak freely and protest peacefully.

The Congressional Black Caucus asked FBI Director Christopher Wray in a private meeting in November, as well as during public testimony in December, to rescind the report. Wray did not commit to doing so, but in his December testimony noted that “we continue to evaluate the data as it rolls in” and anything from a retraction to a reaffirmance to a clarification of the August report was possible. FBI spokesman Andrew Ames said Tuesday there was “no update” since then.

The FBI report, titled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers,” defines black identity extremists as people who seek to commit acts of violence motivated by “perceived racism and injustice in American society.” The report said the increase in violence against law enforcement “likely” began after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and subsequent grand jury decision not to indict the police officers involved.

It lists six attacks since 2014, including Micah Johnson, the Dallas shooter who killed five police officers in July 2016, and Gavin Eugene Long, the Baton Rogue shooter who killed three officers 10 days later, as examples of black identity extremists.

“This document essentially says we don’t care about your ideology, we care about your black identity,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked in the counterterrorism division. “It’s an enormous classification that could encompass any violence by a black person.”

Nusrat Choudhury, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program, referred to the term black identity extremist as a “manufactured threat.”

The FBI’s Ames noted that the bureau’s domestic terrorism program identifies nine extremist movements: white supremacy, black identity, militia, sovereign citizens, anarchists, abortion, animal rights, environmental rights, and Puerto Rican Nationalist.

But critics point out that the “white supremacy” category applies to specific organizations and groups with a specific message, while “black identity extremists” are defined far more broadly; the two are not equivalent, they maintain.

The six attacks named in the ADL report span 2014 to 2016 and resulted in eight deaths to police officers and several injuries. The last time black nationalist groups fatally assaulted police officers before 2016 was in the 1970s, according to German.

Between 2011 and 2017, there were 11 officers killed by right-wing extremist groups compared to those eight officers killed by left-wing groups, according to ADL. That’s a much narrower gap than in the previous two decades: From 2001-2010, right-wing extremists killed 24 officers while those on the left killed two, and from 1991-2000 the figures were 16 and one, respectively.

Joshua Freilich, co-creator of the Department of Homeland Security-funded U.S. Extremist Crime Database, had similar findings on far-right extremists: 45 police officers have been killed by far-right extremists since 1990, with four additional killings still under review. Far-right extremists have killed one officer in 2017, according to his research, while far-left extremists have killed two, with another death still under review. (Freilich’s numbers don’t include the killings of the two corrections officers that were part of the ADL’s tally; while the two Georgia inmates were members of a white supremacist gang, their attacks on the corrections officers came during an escape attempt and were not seen as ideologically motivated, a requirement in Freilich’s calculations.)

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., called the FBI report “very alarming” and said it could be used to label members of Black Lives Matter an extremist group. Other members said after the CBC meeting that Wray could not name a single black identity extremist group, though the report makes repeated references to those groups without specifying them.

“This FBI assessment went out to almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies, some of whom have intelligence departments, some of whom don’t. Some will have protests in the future,” Richmond said. “Our fear is...these young people who are out there, exercising their first amendment right to protest and create the type of change they want to see in this country, will be viewed as extremist” by the police, based on the report.

German noted that “the report seems to go through a lot of trouble to avoid” the term Black Lives Matter. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to say whether Black Lives Matter could be considered a black identity extremist group in testimony before a House committee in November.

Though Wray repeatedly emphasized to a House committee in November that the FBI does not conduct surveillance on groups simply for their speech, the bar for the FBI to justify surveillance is “very, very low,” according to German — and the FBI’s August report can be used to reinforce that reasoning.

“All they need is speculation that a group might sometime in the future commit violence to target them,” German said. “And that speculation can come from their own agents. It’s such a low threshold.” Choudhury agreed with the characterization.

Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white people.

“This (report) distorts the threat picture, because this is a small sample of violence against police officers,” German said. “We want to look out for the well-being of law enforcement, and this means they’re going to miss out on real threats to them.”

“Without a clear statement from the FBI that this report has been retracted or disavowed, there is no guarantee that law enforcement is not actively surveilling black activist groups who are simply asserting their right to free speech,” Choudhury said. “This is embarassing for the FBI, and terrifying for those groups.”

Clarification: This story has been clarified with additional text explaining what the FBI’s counterrorism program tracks, and to note that the bureau is continuing to evaluate the “black identity extremist” category.

McClatchy reporters Emma Dumain and Bill Douglas contributed to this report.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby