A Fresno police officer is under investigation after he was spotted in photos and video posted online over the weekend that appear to show him affiliating with members of the far-right Proud Boys group at a protest, according to law enforcement officials.
The officer, identified by the Fresno Bee as Rick Fitzgerald, is on paid leave as the investigation goes forward. The Fresno Police Department and mayor's office declined to release the officer's name, saying it would be a violation of rights afforded to members of the force.
For weeks, protesters have arrived every Sunday to decry the sale of the Tower Theater to an evangelical church that some perceive as intolerant of the gay community. The Proud Boys reportedly arrived to counter protest.
Founded amid the 2016 elections, the Proud Boys has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for espousing white nationalist views, as well as misogynistic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The group claims they are not racist, but simply "Western chauvinists" opposed to political correctness, according to the law center.
After learning late Sunday afternoon that a local officer was allegedly tied to the group, Fresno Chief Police Paco Balderrama said an investigation was underway.
"Any allegations of actions unbecoming of a police officer or affiliation with any alleged criminal or hate group will always be investigated and addressed," Balderrama said. "Fair and impartial policing are extremely important in our society." He added that there is "no place in our police ranks for any biased, racist or anti-Semitic views."
Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer said he also became aware of the claims Sunday afternoon when he was sent a screenshot of a social media post depicting what looked like a local police officer associating with the Proud Boys.
Dyer, who served as Fresno police chief for 18 years, called the allegations "extremely disturbing" in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"I understand the ... impact it can have on the community in terms of loss of trust," Dyer said, adding: "Rightfully so, people want answers."
The investigation will look beyond this one incident, Dyer said, to see if other officers or city employees might be implicated.
"The hope is this is an aberration," Dyer said. "However, I think it's important that we keep an open mind and do our due diligence to make sure that there's no one else involved."
He said he hopes the investigation will be completed within 30 to 45 days, but there's no firm timeline. He has also brought on an independent police auditor, who will monitor the investigation and review the findings. The auditor can agree with the conclusions or take a different position.
The length of the investigation will depend on how many witnesses are involved and other factors, according to Lt. Robert Beckwith, a police spokesperson.
It's unclear how much of the investigation will be made public.
"Generally personnel investigations are deemed confidential and the results are not made public unless required by law," Beckwith said in an email. He added that it's too early to tell what information might be legally available under SB 1421, a law governing the release of police records.
"Whatever can be released lawfully, will be released," Dyer said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.