A Police Chief Got Rid of a Neo-Nazi. Then Came the Hard Part.

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
Police Chief Ken Scarlette of Springfield, Ill., quickly took action when he learned a neo-Nazi officer was on his force.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Around 6 a.m. one Friday last year, Springfield Police Chief Ken Scarlette was jolted awake by a call from his deputy, whose tone was grim: “We have a problem here.”

The problem was Aaron Paul Nichols, an officer with 18 years’ service who also had served for two decades as a U.S. military reservist. Anonymous activists had released an online report unmasking Nichols as a white supremacist behind tens of thousands of social media posts seething with hate.

Because of the timing – April 1, 2022 – Scarlette wondered for a second whether this was an April Fools’ prank on the new boss. He had been sworn in just six weeks before. But the details in the exposé left no doubt. As Scarlette read one damning revelation after another, it began to sink in that the Officer Nichols he knew as an even-tempered professional had a secret life spreading neo-Nazi beliefs.

“We’ve got to handle this right now,” he recalled thinking.

Within four hours, Nichols was summoned to a meeting in the chief’s office, where senior officers and police union leaders already had assembled. Scarlette said he had prayed about how to respond and felt certain about his decision when an unrepentant Nichols showed up with “a proud look on his face that made my blood boil.” Officials in the room said Nichols did not deny writing the posts.

Scarlette placed Nichols on unpaid administrative leave, effective immediately, and told him that internal affairs was launching an investigation. As a symbolic way to “strip him of his police powers,” the chief said, he ordered Nichols to peel off his department-issued gear.

“Remove his badge. Remove his gun belt. Remove his vest. His shirt. All that stuff,” Scarlette said, recounting the moment in a recent interview at his office. “He walked out of here in his pants and his undershirt.”

Scarlette’s no-nonsense response drew attention among analysts tracking the spread of far-right ideologies. Law enforcement leaders seldom act decisively when extremists are uncovered in their ranks, hate monitors say, with cases typically stagnating because of pushback from police unions, fear of expensive First Amendment challenges, or resistance to being seen as caving to anti-police activism.

It is difficult to measure the creep of far-right beliefs among the more than 650,000 police and sheriff’s patrol officers the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts nationwide, but the issue is of growing concern, with dozens of prominent examples in recent years, including current and former law enforcement officers charged with taking part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Others have been linked to far-right militia groups and white-supremacist factions, or have been identified as contributing racist posts on police message boards. An Oklahoma sheriff made national headlines in recent weeks after he was recorded reportedly talking about killing journalists and lynching Black people.

The Biden administration raised the issue in a domestic terrorism strategy document issued in 2021 that pledged improved screening for U.S. military recruits and federal agents. All Americans, the document states, deserve “law enforcement that approach their critical tasks without any racial bias or any other biases.”

The problem is that there are no agreed-on standards in law enforcement about what constitutes extremism, much less there being a manual on how to fight it. There is wide variation in related policies, where they exist at all, on the permissibility of membership in far-right groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, the content of social media posts, or even certain tattoos. And when departments do remove extremist officers, there is often little transparency about closed-door personnel decisions.

Against this patchwork, Scarlette’s unequivocal and public response stood out.

The chief ordered a review of every available record of Nichols’s conduct on the job to check for bias in his police work, a mammoth task involving 132 hours of body-camera footage, 12 years of reports, a decade of traffic stops and more than 2,000 chat messages. He added extra screening questions to the hiring protocol. The entire police department underwent specialized training on extremism.

Scarlette met regularly with civil rights and faith leaders who were closely following the response.

A statement from Black Lives Matter Springfield, co-signed by several other civil rights groups, said “we appreciate the swift action and statement issued by Chief Ken Scarlette,” even as they called for a sweeping review of police conduct.

In the year that followed, however, praise for “the Springfield model” has been tempered by the deeply rooted distrust Scarlette hears from a community that has long experienced racial injustices in policing. He also has run into structural barriers that make it hard to deliver on those early promises of accountability.

Some nights, the chief said, the tensions press against his chest and make it hard to sleep. He’s a solutions guy, a compulsive list-maker faced with a task that may never be checked off as “done.” Can a police force poisoned by hate ever fully recover?

“It’s important that I hear that this wound has healed,” Scarlette said. “But there’s still a scar there.”

Scarlette, who was born and reared in Springfield, is tall, with a military-style haircut, metal-rimmed glasses and a Boy Scout’s earnestness. He married his high school sweetheart, Tracy, whom he met in Bible study, and they have two daughters. Every Sunday, the family goes to the church Scarlette grew up attending.

As a boy, Scarlette said, he loved watching his father come home from work each day in an Illinois State Police uniform, squad car parked out front. He never wanted to be anything but a police officer and dropped out of college to accept a spot on the Springfield force at age 21.

“I’m a White guy that grew up with a dad as a cop,” he said. “I’m not scared to see a police officer or talk to a police officer, but others have had completely different experiences.”

Days after the news about Nichols broke, Scarlette faced a small crowd of Springfield residents who showed up at a community forum to grill him about the white supremacist who had policed their streets since 2004.

“I got officers who wear the same uniform that I wear, and they hate me because of the color of my skin,” said a Black policeman from the parks department.

“Can you give us any insight into how the police department failed for so long to see this?” asked a leader of the Jewish Federation of Springfield.

“Eighteen years. Eighteen years,” said a Black activist in a baseball cap. “Nobody knew?”

Scarlette, in his chief’s uniform, sat stiffly before the audience. He was flanked by other Illinois officials roped in by Teresa Haley, the president of the city and state NAACP chapters. The national civil rights organization traces its origins to Springfield, where White mob violence in 1908 “was the final tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP,” according to the group’s website.

More than a century later, the organization that emerged from Springfield’s deadly riots was navigating the city through another outburst of racist hate. The event, organized with the Jewish Federation, was billed as a “unity forum” to promote healing after the unmasking of Nichols. The audience made sure that older, deeper wounds also were on the agenda.

Residents brought up race-related incidents at the Springfield Police Department going back to 2017. Two officers had gotten in trouble for using the n-word; one had been fired by Springfield but then was hired by a neighboring department. Another officer was disciplined for a Facebook post in which he used disparaging expletives against Black city council members. A Black female officer reported finding “the head of a black Barbie doll with her hair cut off” as she was leaving work one day. Police officials confirmed the incidents.

“We’ve got to focus on the trauma this does to the community,” said Willie “Shawn” Gregory, an alderman representing a majority-Black ward in Springfield.

For years, local advocacy groups have accused the city of denying their requests for greater transparency, such as blocking the release of internal affairs files for officers with racism or discrimination complaints against them. City officials passed the blame on to the police union for opposing more visible, stringent consequences they say would have signaled that Springfield was serious about enforcing police accountability.

The previous chief of police, Kenny Winslow, said he was hired in 2014 as a “change agent” but soon met ingrained attitudes that showed him “you’re not going to change a culture overnight.” Again and again, Winslow clashed with the union over how to discipline officers accused of misconduct. Union officials agreed that they opposed penalties they saw as too harsh but added that their opposition to Winslow went beyond those disputes.

Relations between Winslow and the union continued to worsen, ultimately resulting in a no-confidence vote by union members. Winslow stepped down in early 2022 and was succeeded by Scarlette. He now serves as executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, a post that gives him a statewide view of the ad hoc ways departments are dealing with far-right extremism.

The 13,000-person Chicago Police Department, for example, is embroiled in a scandal over its continued employment of personnel with ties to extremist groups, the most notable being an officer the FBI had investigated for his alleged association with the Proud Boys. Elsewhere in the state, at least two sheriffs and other public officials have come under scrutiny for alleged links to anti-government movements.

Winslow and others monitoring the fallout from the Nichols case said they hope the response sets a standard. Heidi Beirich, a longtime extremism analyst who consulted with Springfield leaders, said Scarlette’s “transparency and honesty will be a help to many others in law enforcement.” Last fall, the chief was invited to speak at a national summit of extremism researchers in Pittsburgh. Even the Anonymous Comrades Collective, the anti-fascist group that exposed Nichols, commended Springfield as an “outlier” for confronting the issue head-on.

Still, they all acknowledge that Nichols’s online comments were so extreme that Scarlette was able to act forcefully without riling union officials, who had quickly decided the officer’s actions were indefensible and said they agreed with his ouster. When an officer’s alleged extremism lands in a grayer area, the fights escalate, sometimes all the way to court.

Winslow said many police departments lack the money for legal battles if they are sued by officers who were removed for hate speech. He said officials also are fearful of community backlash or of a scandal that would drive away job candidates at a time when police departments across the nation face a recruiting crisis.

Winslow listens with empathy, he said, but the advice he gives chiefs is to be brave and “do the right thing,” no matter the risks. “You got to decide: What are you going to stand for?”


The Officer Nichols who showed up for his shifts every day was a quiet loner with a burly frame and graying hair that made him look older than his 46 years. He was a reliable patrol officer but no standout, several former colleagues said, recalling him as more likely to be guarding the perimeter than charging into a volatile situation.

On occasion, Nichols, a married father of three, showed flashes of right-wing politics but nothing out of the ordinary for his conservative police milieu, officers said.

“It was more like conspiracy-theory-type stuff. That was the vibe I got,” said Tami Russell, the president of the Springfield police union and a longtime officer who has worked alongside Nichols.

Off duty, however, there was another version of Nichols. This one thrived online as a racist troll whose user names referred to Nazi ideology. He defended Adolf Hitler in several posts and once wrote: “If I found a genie and I had one wish? The jews would be a distant memory within 72 hours.”

That alter ego was equally vicious toward Black people, likening them to animals and frequently dropping the n-word. He spewed hatred for LGBTQ people, fat women, homeless people. At times, the anonymous poster acknowledged his job as a policeman and suggested that he was working from within to collapse the system: “The best place I can possibly be is inside the beast.”

Because Nichols hid his name and location, activists had only the tiniest of clues to work with as they pieced together his identity: a defunct Twitter handle, the mention of a stream in his yard, a photo of a $700 wristwatch.

“As soon as we read it, we were just like, ‘Man, we should hire these people as investigators,’ because – holy damn – they solved this stuff quick. I mean, it was impressive,” said Russell, the union president.

When he was confronted, his supervisors said, Nichols confirmed that he previously used the screen names and did not dispute that he had written the posts.

Nichols has not commented publicly. Old phone numbers and email addresses for him are no longer active; no one answered calls or responded to messages on a working number belonging to Nichols’s wife. Police and union officials said they had heard Nichols was working odd jobs around town but had no details of his whereabouts or employment.

With Nichols identified, the mission became reconciling the personas to answer two crucial questions: Did Nichols’s racial hatred spill into his daily work as a police officer? And were any other officers aware or involved?

That task fell to Lt. Joe Phillips of internal affairs and another lieutenant, Bob Markovic, who has since retired. The two men split up 132 hours of body-camera videos and watched every moment of Nichols’s mundane duties, searching for instances when the mask might have slipped.

“It wasn’t like an episode of ‘Cops,’ I’ll tell you that,” Phillips said.

The work was slow and tedious, but he said there was an understanding throughout the department of the stakes.

“This might be one of the more important things we do this year, maybe in our whole careers – to make sure there wasn’t a miscarriage of justice,” Phillips said.

Yet, after poring over body-camera video, analyzing traffic stops and scanning messages, Phillips and his partner found no indication that Nichols had displayed evidence of his abhorrent beliefs or bias while on duty. His interactions with people of all backgrounds appeared calm and courteous. Apart from some far-right newsletters in his work inbox, Nichols the police officer and Nichols the neo-Nazi lived in separate worlds.

“He put on a good face,” Phillips said, shaking his head. “It was amazing that he could look somebody in the eye and talk to them like that and then be writing this stuff about them when he gets home.”

Scarlette said he was relieved that the investigation had found that Nichols acted on his own, with no other officers implicated. The posts had violated the department’s code of conduct but had not tainted any cases and did not constitute criminal activity, according to the final report on the inquiry released in November.

Instead of being reassured, however, many Black and Brown people in Springfield were incredulous. At the NAACP forum and in local Facebook groups, residents asked variations of, “Seriously? Nobody knew?” Local Black Lives Matter leaders challenged the methodology of the inquiry and criticized the department for running it in-house rather than enlisting a neutral party. Activists were incensed that Nichols was allowed to keep his taxpayer-funded pension.

Internally, the fallout was just as devastating, Scarlette said. The questions he got from Springfield’s 30 or so Black officers – about 11 percent of the force – revealed a shattered trust: “Are there others that we need to be aware of? Do I have the support of my fellow officers when I’m going out on calls?”

But the options to impose harsher consequences were limited. Nichols could not be charged with a crime: Hate speech is constitutionally protected, and he had not violated any laws. And he was still legally allowed to own guns, a chilling thought for activists who feared that Nichols might be particularly combustible now that he had been exposed.

“To a person, the conversations that I have had ended with sort of a mutual frustration with the situation but also understanding that I don’t just get to file charges because someone has expressed views that were reprehensible,” said Dan Wright, the state’s attorney for Sangamon County, which includes Springfield.

That summer and fall, Scarlette focused on reconciliation with the community, showing up at barbecues and bake sales as he worked to rebuild trust. By winter, he said, the uproar over Nichols had receded and he was looking forward to getting back to other priorities, such as salaries and recruiting.

Then, a week before Christmas, Springfield was plunged into another racial crisis.

Two paramedics were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Earl Moore Jr., a Black man in medical distress who asphyxiated after being strapped facedown on a stretcher.

Moore’s family filed a wrongful-death suit against the paramedics and their employer, the ambulance service Lifestar, with the help of the high-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in landmark cases.

The same community leaders with whom Scarlette had consulted about Nichols were soon back in his office to watch body-camera footage of officers on the scene with the paramedics. The video showed that police had tried to intervene on Moore’s behalf.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of Springfield’s public, the incident had begun with a 911 call and ended with the death of a restrained, unarmed Black man. Scarlette knew that the road back from Nichols had just grown longer. Maybe it would be endless.

Feeling defeated, he turned to God, he said.

“Give me the patience, give me the understanding, give me the knowledge,” Scarlette prayed. “Let me be the leader you want me to be.”


One afternoon in February, Scarlette strode in from the brisk air for a meeting with a civic group that had requested an update on police responses to the Nichols revelations.

“It’s warm in here,” Scarlette said as he entered the toasty conference room. “Somebody turned the heat on.”

“No, you’re just in the hot seat,” deadpanned Gail Simpson, a Black community activist and former alderwoman.

Scarlette laughed along with everyone else. By now, he rolls with the barbs and nods along to criticism. In tandem with the city’s reckoning, Scarlette said, he has undergone his own introspection, challenging himself to better understand negative perceptions of law enforcement.

In his outreach since the Nichols episode, Scarlette hears stories such as those told by Terrance Jordan, a schools administrator who was part of the chief’s meeting that day with a group of local leaders dedicated to community health.

As Black teens growing up in Springfield, Jordan told the chief, he and his friends regularly were profiled by officers who would “roll up” on them as they hung out after school and start patting down their pockets. He recalled the experience as terrifying and urged Scarlette to consider that history as he charted a plan for the future.

“I think that’s just as important as what you guys do moving forward,” Jordan said. “But how do you acknowledge the wrong that was done? I don’t know.”

Scarlette told him he would ensure that “something like that Nichols incident, something like what has happened historically in the past with policing” would never happen again.

As they talked, Jordan’s tone softened, and he assured the chief that he had seen changes. The other members nodded. Jordan said he had been surprised to see officers playing ball with local children on the same street corners where he and his friends were hassled.

“It’s not perfect,” Jordan said, “but I’ve seen the difference, and I’ve seen the growth, and I’m appreciative.”

After the meeting, Scarlette said it was frustrating that he could not yet deliver an ending for the saga. His biggest play was decertification, a formal request for the revocation of Nichols’s ability to work elsewhere as a law enforcement officer, an option that had not been available in Illinois until the governor introduced it as part of recent criminal justice reforms.

The process was so new, Scarlette said, that when he sent the request – just four days after learning of Nichols’s online posts – his contact at the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, known as ILETSB, told him there were no personnel to consider the issue and likened the office to “flying a plane in the air that has not been put together.”

Twelve months later, ILETSB still had not officially ruled on the matter. Officials there did not respond to a phone message or email seeking comment.

The move might not be monumental, Scarlette said, but it would be an answer to the question that still comes up in every meeting, one concrete win in his year-long fight against hate.

“You don’t get to just resign and this whole thing goes away,” he said. “Because it’s not going away for me as chief. It’s not going away for this agency. It’s not going away for the city.”