“WELL, LOOK WHO THE DEMS HAVE AS A DEPUTY CHAIR!”
The message by Richard Crites, a sheriff’s deputy in Missouri, starts off like so many political posts on Facebook. Then there’s the kicker:
“A RAGHEAD MUSLIM.”
In New Jersey, prison guard Joseph Bonadio posted repeated insults about the Prophet Muhammad and shared memes of roasting pigs with the message “Happy Ramadan.” In Georgia, retired cop Claude Stevens Jr. railed against Muslims for months, posting conspiracy theories and Islamophobic memes.
They are among dozens of current and former American law enforcement officers whom Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting identified as members of Facebook groups dedicated to Islamophobia. With names such as “Veterans Against islamic Filth,” “PURGE WORLDWIDE (The Cure for the Islamic disease in your country)” and “Americans Against Mosques,” these groups serve as private forums to share bigoted messages about Muslims, and they have proven attractive for cops.
Reveal’s yearlong investigation found police officers across the country belonging to a wide spectrum of extremist groups on Facebook, such as Confederate groups filled with racist memes and conspiracies and groups run by the anti-government militias Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. Islamophobic behavior was notably brazen. While officers shared slur-filled jokes about African Americans, Latinos and the LGBTQ community behind the walls of closed groups, anti-Muslim comments often were posted on public pages for all to see.
“The problem with law enforcement officials engaging in this type of behavior is that it’s probably influencing the way in which they police in their communities,” said Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry at the civil rights group Muslim Advocates. “If they hold these biases towards Muslims, we’re very deeply concerned about the ways in which that manifests itself when it comes to being a first responder or being somebody who is investigating crimes against Muslims.”
The findings come as hate crimes against American Muslims continue at historically high levels. Muslim places of worship across the country have been set on fire and had their windows broken. Islamophobes have left slabs of bacon and scrawled graffiti on the doorsteps of mosques. Muslims have been shot, stabbed and had their religious garments ripped off. They’ve been shouted at, kicked, threatened and spit on.
Islamic centers and places of worship across the country also have boosted security since the horrific attacks against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, often asking local cops to stand guard during services.
Muslim Americans long have been the targets of discriminatory policing, most notably in New York City in the years after the 9/11 attacks. In 2018, the New York Police Department settled the last of three major lawsuits in which it was accused of spying on the local Muslim community for more than a decade, infiltrating mosques and creating a team of informants with the help of the CIA.
We notified nearly 150 departments about their officers’ behavior on Facebook and membership in extremist groups. Some departments launched immediate investigations, and one detective in Houston was fired for posting racist memes about African Americans, in violation of department policy.
However, other departments were unbothered by their officers’ social media activity. Some police leaders were angry that we even asked them about it.
Not a single department has said it disciplined an officer for Islamophobic posts or membership in an anti-Islam group.
‘This group is for those who wish to speak out about the evils of Islam’
We were able to identify cops in these groups by writing software to scour Facebook for connections between users who belonged to both extremist and law enforcement groups on the platform, then verifying the identities and professions of active-duty and retired officers. (Read more about our methodology here.)
Through that search, we found people such as Crites, a sworn member of the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office in Missouri.
In addition to his 2018 “raghead Muslim” comment, which he used to introduce a news story about then-Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, Crites was a member of three different extremist Facebook groups, including one called “STOP OBAMA AND CRONIES : RADICAL LEFTIES, ISLAMISTS, MEDIA LIES,” which we joined. Inside the group, which was full of Islamophobic content, we saw Crites posting several times, including writing, “Stop Obama stop the Muslims.”
Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said Crites is a volunteer deputy but carries a gun and has arrest powers. Asked about Crites’ activity on Facebook, DeLay said he’s never heard any concerns from the community about his deputy’s work.
“I’m looking at disciplinary records now, and there aren’t any complaints,” he said.
DeLay wouldn’t provide us with those records, and Crites didn’t respond to numerous calls for comment.
Joseph Bonadio is a senior corrections officer for the New Jersey Department of Corrections. He also was a member of a group called “Infidel Brotherhood Worldwide.”
Islamophobic groups often use the word “infidel” as a dog whistle to attract people with similar views on Islam. Facebook is full of “infidel” groups, including “Any islamist insults infidels, I will put him under my feet,” “The Infidel Den – Anti Islam Coalition” and “Infidel Elite – Against Islam, by the Pen and/or Sword,” all of which count law enforcement officers as members.
Inside these groups, members often traffic in disproven theories that Muslims are invading the United States and plan to impose Sharia law and that this “Muslimification” already has happened across much of Europe.
Often, though, members just express their disgust with a religion practiced by about a quarter of the world’s population.
“The rabies that is islam being passed down from deluded parent to deluded and brainwashed child,” reads a typical civilian comment in “Infidel Brotherhood Worldwide.”
Bonadio, who works at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center, a prison in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, hasn’t actually posted in the group. Instead, he posted openly anti-Muslim content on his public Facebook wall:
- “Known fact Jesus is better then (sic) goat FUCKER Muhammad,” he posted in 2015.
- “I love the smell of bacon on Ramadan … Smells like America,” reads a meme he posted in May, at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
- “Happy Ramadan,” he posted the same day, captioning a photo of a pig being roasted over a barbecue.
In addition to posting anti-Muslim content, Bonadio poked fun at the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people. He also has posted memes more than once that depict former first lady Michelle Obama as a man and questioned whether white Americans should be blamed for bringing slavery to the country.
After we sent screenshots of Bonadio’s Facebook activity to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, a spokesperson sent the following statement: “We are aware of the allegations referenced. These allegations will be investigated and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken, if warranted.”
Bonadio did not respond to a call for comment.
Many working police officers were careful to hide their identities on Facebook, using pseudonyms, not listing their place of work or sometimes claiming to work in nonexistent jobs. An officer in Chicago, for example, listed his job as “Bent Over at City of Chicago.” Several cops used variations of their real names, such as Texas State Trooper Kevin Lashlee, who called himself “KD Lash” on Facebook and posted in a group containing racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic content.
But retired law enforcement officers were far more brazen.
Claude Stevens Jr., who retired from the Waynesboro Police Department in Georgia in 2015, since has joined at least six closed anti-Muslim groups, including “DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER” and another named “Rage against the veil.”
Stevens’ personal Facebook page was awash with anti-Islamic memes, and he’s actively commented in at least two of the closed groups. For example, he wrote under a video of Islamic immigrants in Germany, “The Prophet Muhammad eat’s (sic) dog shit and is a follower of Satan/Allah” in March 2017.
When reached for comment, Stevens initially was defensive of his views. He called Islam “evil” and said America needs to be extremely wary of Muslim immigrants, who he claims seek to impose Sharia law in a Christian nation. However, he claimed that as a police officer, he always treated people fairly, no matter what their religion.
Asked how he could treat all people equally while at the same time posting about how Muslims are “filthy” and “animals,” he paused and said: “I would have to concede to you that I probably have to back off on my words and look at it differently.”
As a transit officer with the New York Police Department, John Intranuovo policed a city that’s home to more than 600,000 Muslims. Now that he’s retired, he has used a group called “Stop the War on Christianity and White America” to rail against Muslims.
Intranuovo had a simple reaction to a post about former President Barack Obama endorsing Amir Malik of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who was seeking election to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2018. “No muslims,” he wrote. In another comment, Intranuovo called Muslims “evil people.”
Intranuovo also was a member of two more anti-Muslim Facebook groups: “The Infidel Den – Anti Islam Coalition” and “THE VOICE OF THE AMERICAN INFIDELS,“ neither of which allowed us to join, but both of which contained openly anti-Islam sentiment in their public descriptions.
“This group is for those who wish to speak out about the evils of Islam. All members of this group want Islam removed from America,” reads the public description for “THE VOICE OF THE AMERICAN INFIDELS,” which can be viewed by anybody on Facebook.
‘These are law enforcement officers who are sworn to protect us’
Earlier this year, Facebook announced a big push against hate speech.
As part of founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to turn around the social media behemoth, Facebook first promised to ban white nationalist and white supremacist content, then followed up by ousting several prominent purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric, including Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer. But anyone hoping these moves would mark an end to widespread hate speech on the platform was disappointed.
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who tracks hate groups on Facebook, frequently reports such groups and content to moderators. She said the social media platform acts only on reports of hateful speech, rather than proactively searching for content that violates policy. And even when groups and content are reported, Squire said, Facebook traditionally has been more accepting of “politicized hate” against Islam – that is, groups claiming to protest not Islam itself, but “radical Islam” or “creeping Sharia law.” Inside these groups, we found, slurs and hateful comments most often were directed at all Muslims in a blanket fashion.
“This horrifies me,” said Qasim Rashid, an attorney and author of several books on the Muslim experience in the United States. “These are law enforcement officers who are sworn to protect us. If a guy is in a group on Facebook called ‘Death to Islam’ or ‘Purge Islam as a disease,’ and they’re patrolling our neighborhoods and streets, then who are they really protecting?”
He said tropes linking Islam with terrorism or suggesting that Muslims plan to “take over” countries are unfair and misguided from the start.
“Terrorism has no religion. We’ve seen plenty of examples of so-called Christians who have committed mass shootings,” Rashid said. “If I started a page about ‘radical Christianity’ and started demonizing every Christian out there as a suspected ‘radical Christianist,’ I would be rightfully mocked and ridiculed and called a bigot.”
In a year of studying extremist groups on Facebook, we noticed how groups have adapted to content moderation practices on the platform. Openly racist groups such as those connected to the Ku Klux Klan don’t last very long on the site. The racist groups that survive have adopted the coded language typical of the alt-right movement or disguised themselves as Confederate history groups.
By contrast, Islamophobic groups are transparent in their intentions and even in their names. While in recent months Facebook has removed groups tied to white nationalist organizations such as the Proud Boys – like the group “Proud Boys Southern Chapter” – the social network continues to host groups that are openly hostile to Muslims, such as “DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER.” Every day, users post hateful content in these groups, often pledging violence against American Muslims.
Facebook denies treating anti-Muslim hate, in whatever guise, differently from other forms of hate speech.
“Our policies against extremist content/organized hate groups are longstanding. Our Community Standards are clear that we don’t allow hate groups to maintain a presence on Facebook,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
Ahussain said Muslim Advocates is just one of many advocacy groups pushing Facebook and other social media companies to take hate speech more seriously.
“Facebook provides a platform and a space where people feel like they can say these things,” she said.
That’s particularly true when it comes to hate speech directed against Muslims, Squire said. Islamophobia on Facebook can be a gateway to other forms of intolerance, she said.
The majority of U.S. hate crimes motivated by religious bias are anti-Semitic, and Reveal’s investigation found plenty of anti-Semitic activity in private groups. But the public nature of the Islamophobic activity on the platform resonates with Squire’s observation from years of monitoring Facebook: that anti-Muslim hate speech is “the last accepted form of bigotry in America.”
Researchers Daneel Knoetze and Michael Dailey contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and Matt Thompson.