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City Hall Inspector General Deborah Witzburg.

Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg speaks at a City Club of Chicago luncheon on November 6, 2023. Her office said it reviewed the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs investigation into officers with ties to the Oath Keepers and found the investigation suffered “from deficiencies materially affecting its outcome.”

Jim Vondruska

Chicago police rebuff watchdog’s request to reopen probe into cops’ ties to Oath Keepers

Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said officers tied to extremist groups “are dishonoring the badge.”

City Hall’s independent watchdog urged the Chicago Police Department to reopen its investigation that absolved eight officers with ties to the anti-government, extremist Oath Keepers, but CPD “declined to do so,” Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said Tuesday.

The inspector general’s office said it reviewed the CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs investigation, which ended in April, and “found BIA’s investigation to suffer from deficiencies materially affecting its outcome.”

Witzburg alleged problems with the department’s interviews of three officers whose names had appeared on leaked membership lists for the Oath Keepers, a national group that played a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

In a letter to BIA Chief Yolanda Talley on June 13, Witzburg’s office also repeated her assertion that the police leaders could have charged the eight cops with breaking CPD rules against officers bringing “discredit upon the department.”

But Timothy Moore, deputy BIA director, rebuffed the inspector general’s request on June 28. Moore acknowledged that seven of the eight accused officers had signed documents related to the Oath Keepers but he said none “had intentions of joining a violent extremist group,” according to records released Tuesday by Witzburg.

“The mere fact that the accused members signed up to become a member of an organization long before the average citizen and the Office of the Inspector General knew the group existed, is not enough evidence to suggest the Chicago Police Department currently employs members of the Oath Keepers,” Moore wrote.

“For the foregoing reasons, BIA does not agree that its investigative analysis is ‘deficient’ or materially affected this investigation.”

But Witzburg’s office argued that, although the Oath Keepers gained greater notoriety in 2021, “its members have been involved in numerous armed confrontations with government actors throughout the country dating back to the group’s inception” in 2009.

Witzburg also said Tuesday that Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office had not taken her recommendation that City Hall convene a new task force to address the problems of extremism in the police ranks: “The mayor’s office neither accepts [the inspector general’s] recommendation nor commits to any specific action at all.”

Witzburg’s office recently told Johnson and his top cop, Larry Snelling, that efforts to combat extremism in the CPD had “fallen short” of their vows to have zero tolerance for extremist cops.

In response to the inspector general, a Johnson aide wrote that the administration and police “remain fully committed to rooting out extremist, anti-government, and biased organizations in our law enforcement ranks.”

And in his own letter to Witzburg’s office on June 28, Snelling said his department has shown it was “ensuring that there is no place in CPD for Department members who actively participate in or belong to biased organizations or interact with known members of biased organizations.”

But Witzburg said in an interview Tuesday that actions had not matched those words.

“From my perspective, the mayor’s office continues to say the right things,” she told WBEZ and the Sun-Times. “The fact remains, however, that we are out of time for saying the right thing. And now, we have to do better.”

“Dishonoring the badge”

The CPD investigation into the eight officers began in October, when WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported on the misconduct records of cops tied to the anti-government group and detailed the police department’s apparent tolerance for extremism.

The joint investigation, “Extremism in the Ranks,” found 27 current and former officers whose names appeared in leaked Oath Keepers membership records, nine of whom remained on active duty.

In response, Snelling promised “thorough investigations” into the officers. “It serves the Chicago Police Department in no way, in no way good, to have members among our department who are filled with bias, or members of hate groups,” Snelling said at the time.

His comments echoed Johnson’s 2023 campaign promise to fire officers with clear ties to extremist groups, namely the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, whose members also played a key role in the 2021 Capitol rioting.

But on May 2, a police spokesperson announced the probe had been closed “and the allegations were not sustained.” The following day, Snelling defended the decision not to discipline any of the officers and released documents detailing the investigation.

The records showed that six of the eight officers who came under investigation admitted signing up for the far-right group, while Officer Matthew Bracken acknowledged he provided his information as a first step toward joining.

Sgt. Michael Nowacki denied that he was ever an Oath Keeper but told investigators he received “several hundred” of emails from the group, some of which he turned over to the BIA. Witzburg’s office called on the CPD to re-interview Nowacki and two other officers, saying that lawyers had helped the two cops answer questions from a BIA investigator.

On recordings of internal affairs interviews with Detective Anthony Keany and Officer Dennis Mack, their attorney is heard feeding them answers – which broke a rule against “counsel interference,” the inspector general alleged.

CPD responded that its investigator did not feel “two separate occasions of whispers by counsel” had disrupted the interviews.

Nowacki and Keany identified themselves as Chicago Police officers in signing up for the Oath Keepers, according to the leaked membership data from the group. Keany told the group he was recruited by other cops, writing, “My brothers in Blue have passed the word amongst ourselves.”

The department closed its investigation of Nowacki, Keany, Mack and five other cops after six months, concluding that “membership into organizations in itself is not a rule violation.”

Witzburg countered that associating with groups such as the Oath Keepers is a violation of the department’s rule forbidding behavior that discredits the department – the same rule used in the 1960s to fire Chicago cops with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

“If it was good enough for the Klan, it’s good enough for the Oath Keepers here,” Witzburg said.

She added that officers who associated with extremist groups “are dishonoring the badge. They are discrediting the men and women doing good work in the uniform of the Chicago Police Department. That serves no one well.”

Johnson ally criticizes “dud” investigation

The issue of extremism at the CPD has drawn criticism for the mayor from even some allies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in May sent a letter to Johnson and Snelling urging them to reconsider the decision not to take disciplinary action against the officers with Oath Keepers ties. The letter was also signed by a group of Johnson allies: progressive Alds. Desmon Yancy (5th); Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th); Jessie Fuentes (26th); Rossana Rodriguez (33rd); and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). David Cherry, president of the Leaders Network, also signed the letter.

Last month, Ramirez-Rosa joined activists and a member of the Shakespeare District police council to call for the officers’ dismissal, lambasting what they described as a “dud of an investigation.”

The probe relied almost completely on interviews with the accused officers. Most of them said they viewed the Oath Keepers as “a Pro Second Amendment group, and supporters of the Constitution,” according to the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs.

The inspector general’s office has repeatedly pushed the police department – under Johnson and his predecessor, Lori Lightfoot – to reopen investigations into officers’ ties to far-right groups, including cops with connections to the Proud Boys and Three Percenters. Police officials have previously agreed to reexamine their findings in other cases – but disciplined only one officer.

Robert Bakker, a Proud Boys associate who came under FBI scrutiny, earned a 120-day suspension that he negotiated in a closed-door settlement.

Officer Kyle Mingari remains under investigation after he was pictured at a racial justice protest in 2020 wearing a mask associated with the Three Percenters.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Tom Schuba is a criminal justice editor for the Sun-Times.

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