ORLANDO — The Imperial Wizard of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is guarded about discussing his organization’s membership.
But this much Cole Thornton openly shares: Florida cops belong to his Klan group because he said they like its rigid standards and its adherence to a strict moral code.
“They (police officers) like the fact that we support law enforcement,” said Thornton, who is based in the Gulf Coast community of Englewood. “These guys are out there putting their lives on the line, and we back them.”
Thornton’s comments come in the wake of the firing of an Alachua County corrections officer who acknowledged he was a member of Thornton’s Klan organization. Wayne Kerschner was fired Dec.29.
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A year ago, the Fruitland Park Police Department investigated one of its officers who was linked to Klan groups. James Elkins denied he was associated with a Klan chapter and resigned.
Thornton would not name any law enforcement officers, but said he thinks that being a member of a “traditional Klan” group “makes them a better cop.”
Florida ranks third nationally, behind California and Texas, in the overall number of identified hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based group that provides tolerance-education programs, offers legal representation against white supremacists and tracks hate groups. The center defines a hate group as one that states other groups or people are somehow lesser or inferior.
Mark Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Project, which investigates such groups, said membership in organizations such as Thornton’s have swelled in recent years.
However, Potok has found no evidence that Klan membership by police officers in Florida — or any other state — is on the uptick. He knew of one other case, in Nebraska, of an officer being removed because of his Klan affiliation.
“I doubt very much whether he (Thornton) has many police officers at all in his organization,” Potok said. “I’ve not seen anything to suggest any significant influx of law enforcement into the Klan. ... There is an absolutely clear conflict between being a law enforcement officer and a member of the Klan.”
Central Florida law enforcement agencies would not speculate about officers belonging to the KKK.
“I don’t have any knowledge one way or another,” Volusia County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Gary Davidson said. “Where there are two, there may be more, but I have no specific knowledge to confirm or refute what they’re saying.”
But Lt. Stephen Maynard of the Alachua Sheriff’s Office said: “I have no reason to doubt his (Thornton’s) claims.”
Maynard said it’s likely other law enforcement officers belong to secretive groups such as the Klan — as do people working for private businesses and perhaps even the media. The difference, he said, is that no organizations outside law enforcement endure the level of scrutiny and “self-policing” that can identify such group membership.
“While we’re certainly not proud that we had this individual working for us ... we are glad this investigation did reveal this and we could remedy the problem by terminating him,” he said.
Thornton praised Kerschner and said he would support him if Kerschner challenged the firing.
“He’s one of the finest officers I have,” he said. “If he was violating what it takes to be a (law enforcement) officer, he would have violated what it takes to be a Klansman, and we would have booted him out. We have pretty high standards, as do they.”
Thornton insisted his Klan organization is not a hate or terrorist group, and he said it opposes violence by its members. “You’re not going to do this movement one bit of good sitting in a jail cell,” he said.
He said his group’s membership has grown because of issues such as the government’s handling of illegal immigration and school prayer and a desire to preserve “white heritage.”
The United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is listed as one of 56 Florida “hate groups” identified by the law center.
Illegal immigration has helped feed much of the growth within hate and far-right-wing extremist groups, Potok said. More recently, President Barack Obama’s election has caused their numbers to increase as well, he said.
Klan membership is generally kept secret, but local Klan chapters in the past were well-represented by law enforcement.
Former Orange County Sheriff Dave Starr, who served from 1949 to 1971, was identified as a Klansman in sworn statements to the FBI. So was former Apopka police Chief William Dunnaway and other powerful county and city officials who ran local government agencies decades ago.
Those affiliations were documented when the Orlando Sentinel obtained decades-old FBI records in 1991.
“Southern police departments were filled with Klansmen and Klan sympathizers in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Potok said.
Orlando police Sgt. Barbara Jones said any officer suspected of being a Klan member today would be written up for violating department regulations. If the suspicion were sustained, the officer would be disciplined “to include termination,” Jones said.
Department policy prohibits membership or connection “with any subversive organization except when necessary in the performance of duty and then only under the direction of the Chief of Police.” A U.S. attorney general’s list of subversive organizations includes the KKK.
In the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, employees must behave in a way that does not discredit themselves, the department or the community. If a deputy were suspected of being a KKK member, the claim would be investigated immediately, officials said.
“If the allegations were proven to be true, the employee’s services would no longer be of value to the Sheriff’s Office or the community,” Lake sheriff’s Lt. John Herrell explained.
“It would be a tremendous conflict of interest to task someone affiliated with a hate group with the responsibility of serving our community and enforcing the laws.”
Last January, Fruitland Park police Chief J.M. Isom began an investigation of James Elkins after Sumter County officials notified him that a Bushnell post office box in Elkins’ name was listed as a mail point on a recruitment flier for the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Then photos of Elkins in a Klan gown and hood — and a police badge — emerged. And the Lake County Sheriff’s Office provided documents showing Elkins became a Klansman in 2006 and later a “district Kleagle” — or recruiter — of the National Aryan Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Elkins resigned before Isom’s investigation was completed. Isom said the findings showed that he lied about his KKK membership when he applied for the job as a Fruitland Park officer.
Thornton knows both former officers well. He said Kerschner had a long history with the Alachua Sheriff’s Office and no racial complaints.
Elkins, he said, had family problems that bothered his Klan group and was “on the verge of being banished.” “Jim was an embarrassment to the Police Department — and to us,” he said.
Isom still considers the Elkins episode to be an embarrassment. He said he thinks his department would be on solid legal ground firing Elkins or anyone else with such a dubious affiliation.
As for Thornton’s insistence that law enforcement officers have joined his organization because of common goals and interests, Isom said: “They’re going to say anything to make themselves look good. ... They don’t believe in the law. They take the law into their own hands — at least they did back in the old days.”