Wichita on watch for extremism in police ranks after officer texted praise of militia group

·4 min read

Anti-government extremism is under a microscope within the Wichita Police Department after an investigation found a SWAT team member voiced support for an anti-government militia group called the Three Percenters, officials said.

Wichita police Officer Chad Spain was suspended for 15 days after an investigation into inappropriate texts exchanged by a group of Wichita police officers, Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputies and two Wichita fire supervisors between 2015 and 2021. The messages were racist, homophobic and glorified violence against civilians.

Spain did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Interim Police Chief Lem Moore said he doesn’t know whether the department harbors militants. He has instructed supervisors to keep an eye out.

“It’s not something I have identified as being a problem at this point in time,” Moore said. “It’s just this one isolated incident.”

The city plans to hire an outside group that will investigate whether other officers have associations to militant groups.

Moore said Spain told him that he thought the Three Percenters meant being loyal to America but sought to distance himself from the movement after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The group was linked to that attack.

“After learning about Jan. 6, he stopped claiming to be a Three Percenter because they did not represent the beliefs that he believed,” Moore said during a news conference Thursday.

Moore suggested an eight-day punishment for Spain. City manager Robert Layton overruled him and ordered the longer suspension.

“(That officer) has since expressed a fundamental ignorance of the movement’s extremism and some of its members’ propensity for violence and has expressed remorse,” Layton said. “However, I cannot condone Wichita police officers espousing such views.”

A clinical psychologist will have to determine whether Spain is fit for duty before he can return to work, Layton said.

Moore would not say whether Spain is still on SWAT.

The text messages were found after police investigators searched the phone of a Sedgwick County deputy involved in a domestic violence case in April 2021. Police reopened the case after The Eagle reported the messages and lack of punishment for officers in March.

Between September 2017 and January 2020, that former deputy, Sgt. Justin Maxfield, and Spain sent messages talking about beating people and showing support for the Three Percenters.

In February 2018, Spain sent a photo of a personal bag with several patches, including an American flag, city of Wichita logo, his name and the following phrases: “(Expletive) around and find out,” “Surprise (expletive homophobic epithet)” and “Don’t tread on me.”

In January 2019, Maxfield messaged Spain that he had just used a Taser on a driver and then hit the driver’s brother in the head with a flashlight.

“Stupid Mexicans,” he wrote.

Spain replied that it’s been a “looooong time since I got to chilli whop a dude with my flashlight. Course we’ve always had the plastic streamlight so you’d just break the (expletive) thing. Good for you getting some licks in Sarge.”

The next month, Maxfield sent a photo of a Three Percenters logo. Spain gave a thumbs up. A couple months after that, Maxfield sent a photo of a soldier carrying an AR-style rifle while standing in front of an American flag.

Maxfield followed it by saying: “Three per” and Spain replied: “(Expletive) Yeah 3per.”

Maxfield also sent a message with two rifles in an X and the words “Sons of Liberty III” and “I am the descendant of men, who would not be ruled.” Spain said, “I need that on a patch in my life.”

In the last messages listed in a news release, Maxfield joked about killing 140 million Muslims in January 2020.

“Bah! Awesome,” Spain replied.

Layton said the Three Percenters are an “extremist, anti-government, militia organization whose members have also expressed malicious, racial and ethnic sentiment towards Muslims and immigrants.”

Layton said the extremist comments are “disturbing enough for me to do what I did.”

On March 22, the day after The Eagle first detailed some of the messages and the lack of punishment for officers, Layton announced a third-party investigation into the culture of the department.

Moore has criticized an earlier internal investigation into the messages under his predecessor, Gordon Ramsay, that cleared most of the officers of any wrongdoing and ordered “non-discipline” coaching and mentoring for some of the most egregious message. The only officer who was suspended after the first investigation was disciplined for calling Ramsay a tool.

Thursday’s announcement was months in the works. Moore said there were thousands of messages, and police investigators are still going through them.

Layton said the city has narrowed its search for a third-party investigator to two companies and expects to choose one in the next few weeks. The scope is still being decided, but department culture, including the extent of racism and extremism in the department, will be investigated, he said. Layton said the investigation will include focus groups and surveys of officers.

Whatever problems they find will be fixed, he said.

“If so, I can assure you that steps will be taken to fix it,” Layton said. “I will do whatever’s necessary to ensure that our citizens have a department they can trust and be proud of.”

Contributing: Chance Swaim of The Eagle