Rewriting History of J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI
by Cynthia Deitle, Former Chief of Civil Rights Unit, FBI (2008–2011)
“I am not J. Edgar Hoover. I was in preschool when your father was murdered. I understand when you look at me, you see the FBI that failed you. I’m sorry we failed and I’m sorry for your loss. I’m here to rewrite history with your help. Let’s work together to bring justice to your family.”
As a former FBI agent, my own words came vividly back to me when I learned that President Donald J. Trump ordered the cancellation of contracts related to training federal employees which include “racial sensitivity and “critical race theory.” Although he may succeed in taking this damaging step with the Office of Personnel Management, he will be unable stop determined and inquisitive federal agents from learning on their own.
I first spoke these words at several community meetings in Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana when I was the Chief of the Civil Rights Unit at the FBI from 2008–2011. I needed the public’s help to solve Civil Rights Era Cold Cases. I knew the power of the FBI machine would grind to a halt without the cooperation of the families destroyed by racial violence. To uncover the truth, I first had to apologize for Hoover’s reign of terror and for some, that’s all they wanted. A sincere apology.
Before I joined the Bureau as a Special Agent in 1995, I researched the agency’s history and read with disgust how Director Hoover used his power to destroy innocent individuals and derail the civil rights movement. He operated the greatest law enforcement agency in the world with an iron, racist fist. I knew the troublesome history of the FBI on race relations and I was determined to help change its future. While I wasn’t responsible for Hoover’s actions, that didn’t matter to citizens who judged me by my FBI badge.
During the ten years I spent on the Civil Rights squad in New York City, I developed a training to teach officers about hate crimes and police brutality. I began with a review of the FBI’s investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi at the hands of police officers and their friends. The officers were able to maintain their dominance over the powerless black citizenry by perpetuating systemic brutality. My goal was for the officers to see behind their badges. While they were not police officers in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, they must recognize how some people view them as the next generation of a vicious policing regime.
I have trained thousands of officers over the past 25 years and I continue to do so today in my role as the Director of Civil Rights Reform at the Matthew Shepard Foundation. I see in the audience an uncomfortable acceptance of the past and a willingness, as police officers, to express empathy and embrace justice. Police chiefs are not fearful of talking about “racial sensitivity” or the past roles that police officers played as architects and enforcers of white supremacy and racial terror. They are well aware of their past and are determined as I am to reshape their future.
I’ve listened to Dennis and Judy Shepard as they share the story of their son Matthew’s murder in 1998. Just as systemic racism spread like cancer through police departments in years past, they attribute homophobia in law enforcement as one of the underlying causes of Matt’s death. Dave O’Malley, one of the lead investigators into Matt’s murder and now Sheriff in Albany County, Wyoming, has acknowledged as much. He admitted to using homophobic slurs to refer to gay men as easily as he said “I love you” to his children. After Matt was killed, Sheriff O’Malley analyzed his role in creating a space for homophobia to flourish and dramatically changed his style of policing to promote equity and inclusivity. There can be no room for homophobia, racism, bigotry or bias within any police force.
This vital education will continue, Mr. President. You can cancel contracts, but you cannot cancel the thirst for knowledge as the means to dramatically overhaul policing. You cannot cancel the desire of thousands of officers who wish to become the empathetic police chiefs of tomorrow armed with an understanding of the past. You cannot cancel the tidal wave of progressive criminal justice reform as we work together for a more peaceful and safer future.
About the Author:
Cynthia M. Deitle is the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Director of Civil Rights Reform. She oversees our programmatic hate crimes work. Prior to joining the Matthew Shepard Foundation in 2017, Cynthia was a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for over 22 years specializing in the fields of civil rights, community outreach, and victims’ assistance.
After entering on duty with the FBI in 1995, she spent ten years in the New York Division. While there, Deitle served as the lead investigative agent for many high-profile police brutality investigations. Deitle also investigated a significant number of sensitive hate crimes cases.