Civil rights group says Chicago should take tougher action against cops linked to Oath Keepers

The Southern Poverty Law Center urged Chicago officials to reconsider a decision not to take disciplinary action against eight officers connected to the Oath Keepers.

Larry Snelling watches as Brandon Johnson speaks behind podium
Chicago Police Superintendent Larry Snelling looks on as Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks during a news conference at CPD headquarters last month. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Larry Snelling watches as Brandon Johnson speaks behind podium
Chicago Police Superintendent Larry Snelling looks on as Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks during a news conference at CPD headquarters last month. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Civil rights group says Chicago should take tougher action against cops linked to Oath Keepers

The Southern Poverty Law Center urged Chicago officials to reconsider a decision not to take disciplinary action against eight officers connected to the Oath Keepers.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

A leading civil rights organization sent a letter Tuesday urging Mayor Brandon Johnson and his handpicked police superintendent to conduct a more thorough investigation into cops linked to the Oath Keepers, a far-right group at the center of the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

The letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center pushes Johnson and Police Supt. Larry Snelling to reconsider the decision not to take disciplinary action against eight officers connected to the Oath Keepers, six of whom admitted during an internal probe to joining the group.

The letter was also signed by a group of Johnson allies: progressive alderpersons 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, signed it as well.

The recent probe was launched in October after WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Project published a joint investigation that revealed the misconduct records of cops with ties to the Oath Keepers and detailed the department’s tolerance of extremism.

The letter notes that many of the cops admitted joining between 2009 and 2013 “when the Oath Keepers were one of the most active and combative antigovernment extremist groups operating in the U.S.”

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

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

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

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

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

The mayor’s office and police department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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

In a scathing letter in January 2023, the law center slammed then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot and then-Supt. David Brown for keeping Bakker on the force.

The new letter doesn’t explicitly call for the dismissal of the officers linked to the Oath Keepers, even though Mayor Johnson vowed on the campaign trail to fire any cops tied to the group.

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

“Supt. Snelling is very much committed and capable of leading this department, and if there are individuals who have been sworn to serve and protect, if they reduce themselves to that type of ideology or affiliation, then yes, I still stand by my position that those individuals should not receive the honor to wear the badge of the Chicago Police Department,” Johnson said at a May 3 news conference with Snelling.

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

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

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

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

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

During the recent probe, Keany and Kim both told investigators they had been recruited by Hoffman, whom Kim described as “one of the main proponents of the Oath Keepers organization.”

Kim also said he met with other Chicago cops linked to the group — “but never for the purposes of talking about the Oath Keepers.”

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

Tim Grace, an attorney who represented many of the officers, insisted to investigators that cops have “rights to join an organization … if it did not interfere with their actions as police officers.”

The department appeared to agree with that assertion. Investigators noted that “membership into organizations in itself is not a rule violation,” referencing the conclusion of the previous Oath Keepers investigation.

The latest probe was launched before a new departmental order took effect in January, explicitly barring officers from engaging with hate and extremist groups. That policy goes as far as prohibiting a department member from “liking” an extremist group’s social media posts.

For his part, Snelling backed the investigation, publicly released the findings and invited Witzburg’s office to scrutinize the case.

“Before we assume that these individuals were proven to be a part of a hate group, let’s look at the entire investigation,” Snelling said at the news conference with Johnson. “And let’s not mislead anyone into believing that this is tied to Jan. 6 — because it’s not.”

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