Police use Private Database to ID & Racially Profile Roma in US

A Unicorn Riot investigation has uncovered dossier records from a privately curated database of Romani people in the United States, and a web of training programs; many of these have been canceled due to pressure from activists and concerned citizens.

Unicorn Riot found a pattern of trainings from multiple law enforcement training academies and police departments, ten records from a privately maintained database of Romani people in America, spoke with an Academy Director in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and activists who monitor anti-Roma bias in the U.S.

Unicorn Riot also uncovered a New Jersey lawsuit from 2019 against the organization hosting the database. The case, Demetro v. Nat’l Ass’n of Bunco Investigations, affected New Jersey case law on NJLAD (New Jersey Law Against Discrimination), after a Romani man sued NABI for civil rights violations for bigoted content posted about him on their website, which led to the ruling that websites are not a place of public accommodation therefore making the database not qualify as a violation of civil rights. (More information can be found here [PDF].) 

Content Advisory: This story contains ethnic slurs only in direct quotes & images from sources.

April coverage: Roma in Greece Face a History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Racism

Secretive Trainings Targeted at Roma Face Opposition

The use of private intelligence gathering to create dossiers on minorities and other targeted groups has a long history in the United States. The first key figure in this chain was military intelligence officer Ralph Van Deman, who privately collected files on hundreds of thousands of leftists during the 1920s ‘Red Scare’ era. While policing America’s empire, his military career connected with torture in the Philippines; the records of his San Diego-based private spy network were recently opened to researchers.

Ralph Van Deman collected dossiers on hundreds of thousands of leftists during the early 20th century. (Source: Wikimedia / army.mil)

A former Illinois police officer, along with a 501c3 nonprofit private national policing organization, has been teaching Law Enforcement Officers to racially profile and think of Romani People in racialized terms, as our investigation of two decades of policing trainings has revealed. This individual, Gary Nolte, alongside a national policing organization, The National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI), have gone as far as harassing and profiling Romani people in order to cultivate a database of “suspected Romani criminals.”

Former Skokie, Illinois police officer Gary Nolte.

In late December 2021, a group of activists stumbled across a Tumblr post featuring a flier from 2010 titled, “‘The perfect victim’ Criminal Gypsies/Travelers and the elderly.” The flier claimed a “criminal gypsy element” had “invaded every metropolitan area,” and that the training provided by Gryphon Training Group would help show law enforcement “how these predators work.”

This discovery and tipoff led to a year-long Unicorn Riot investigation into Gary Nolte, the former law enforcement officer behind the fliers, and NABI, an organization he worked as a part of.

A 2016 flyer for a training in Colorado hosted by Nolte. The Rocky Mountain Information Network (RMIN) is a Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) fusion center network sponsored by the federal government, mentioned briefly in a Denver Police document we released in 2016.(PDF page 75)

The word “G*psy” that Nolte plasters throughout his course fliers is an exonym and a slur that refers to the Romani people, but is also sometimes used to refer to another community of nomadic people from Ireland called Travelers. The slur is a phonetic abbreviation of the word Egyptian (Egyp-cyan), due to a misconception of the origins of the Roma. A fragment of the slur, “gyp,” is used as a derogatory verb for cheating or stealing.

Nolte’s now-deleted website showed his email address was [email protected], a clear indicator he sees the ethnic group as a target. (More screenshots listed below)

Much like Jewish people, the Roma have been the target of hate crimes and discrimination for centuries, both being victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust. To this day, the Roma still face forced sterilization, segregation, discrimination, and police brutality from government entities worldwide. In the US, antiziganism (anti-Roma sentiment) has manifested itself in the form of archaic laws specifically designed to discriminate against them as well as “G*psy police task forces.”

National Association of Bunco Investigators, or NABI, is one such organization that specializes in training police departments on profiling Romani people in the US. Founded in 1985, this 501c3 non-profit publicly touts itself as an organization of “over 800 members in law enforcement and related fields devoted exclusively to assist in the identification, apprehension, and prosecution of Confidence Crime and certain other Non-Traditional Organized Crime group suspects.”

However the organization has as history of making or sharing racist statements about Romani people, and members of the organization have been noted by Romani activists for stalking family events in order to profile them.

Vehicle license plates at a Romani wedding, attributed to a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” task force in 2002

According to a publicly accessible resumé on the Montana Department of Justice website, Nolte claims to have been investigating “G*psy crime” as a police officer since 1995 in Skokie, Illinois. In 2001, Nolte joined the organization National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI) as its president and started creating a list of “suspects of all G*psy descents.”

In 2004, Nolte was appointed the position of Director Emeritus of NABI, in 2006 he retired as police officer and founded Phoenix-based Gryphon Training Group in 2007. (Note that this is not the same organization as a similarly named ‘Gryphon Group Security Solutions’ in North Carolina, which specializes in live fire training for Military and Law Enforcement personnel.)

In 2006, Nolte and NABI began hosting training sessions for police departments and security conscious organizations across the country on “criminal G*psies and Travelers.” It was at this time that Hector Becerra of the LA Times wrote an article about one of their training seminars that he attended, in which he detailed the comments of Nolte and other members of NABI.

Since then, these training seminars have been restricted to law enforcement officers, adult protective or child protective services, loss prevention/risk management personnel, financial institution investigators, and insurance SIU investigators only.

“The way Gary Nolte tries to hide information about his classes is a pretty clear indication that he knows what he’s doing is wrong,” said one of the anonymous activists, “Gary Nolte knows if what he’s doing was getting enough attention from the public that it wouldn’t be tolerated. There are far less offensive things that people have been angry about, and what he’s doing is particularly egregious.”

NABI’s restricted access website landing page, obtained by Unicorn Riot, features a derogatory quote about Romani people.

In the past, Nolte’s classes have gained the attention of the public, and as a result Nolte’s classes have been canceled several times. In October 2016, the Bellevue Police Department canceled one of his courses after public outcry erupted on Twitter. In November 2016, Clackamas, Oregon County Sheriff’s Department also canceled their course after it was brought to public attention. On Feb. 24, 2022, the Kansas City Police Department announced that they would be canceling hosting one of Nolte’s courses after a leaked flier found its way to a podcast titled Roma Unraveled and then Twitter earlier that month. 

From information gathered by the Romani Rights Activists during a phone call with Nolte, Gryphon Training Group hosted 18 or more classes this year.

Trainings Centered in St. Louis

One of the courses would have been at St. Louis County & Municipal Police Academy, in St. Louis, Missouri. 

“We’ve been teaching this course on and off since the mid-2000’s, so approximately 150 people have taken this course here,” said Sergeant Tracy Panus of St. Louis County Police Department’s Public Information Office.

According to Sgt. Panus, enrollment in Nolte’s course at St. Louis County & Municipal Police Academy is lower than that of their other courses, which led to it being co-hosted rather than contracted. “We may have a couple of years where we see an influx of this type of crime, where people are coming in from outside the area and committing burglaries and other crimes, and we don’t see these groups for a couple of years,” said Panus. 

Panus said, “Earlier this year we had a lot of burglaries that were hitting, and we may term them as ‘Gy–’,” Panus paused briefly as she cut herself off, then continued:

“Our burglary detectives certainly didn’t term them that way. People who come in from the outside, they committed a bunch of burglaries against a lot of Asian individuals in our community … We hadn’t seen that in a couple of years here, so we’ll sometimes have people who instruct those types of classes come in and teach those classes to law enforcement on what signs and what things to look for, the transient population or whatever it may be, to get these guys locked up so they’re no longer victimizing people.”

Sergeant Tracy Panus of St. Louis County Police Department’s Public Information Office

On Feb. 28, 2022, the Public Information Office of the St. Louis County Police Department stated over email, “The instructor [at the academy] has canceled the only scheduled upcoming class on our calendar at the academy. We do not have another course with this title scheduled at this time.”

Nolte’s approach in the past few years to advertising his courses has changed slightly, particularly the Nov. 2016 article from the Oregonian was published on the hosting of a training with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.

Since then the advertisements for the course have largely but with exception changed from “‘Without Mercy’ Gypsy/Traveler Crime and the Elderly,” to “Traveling European Organized Crime Groups in [state/region],” or simply “Criminal Gypsies/Travelers,” however the content advertised has not changed. 

Nolte’s advertisements are still largely based on negative stereotypes of Romani people. In both the older and the updated versions of the fliers, he attributes fortune telling scams, scrap metal thefts, home and auto repair scams, and petty theft to the Roma, and if one were to believe Nolte’s advertisements, despite Romani people making up 0.3% of the US population somehow every locale he provides trainings to is “a hot bed of activity,” often by presenting cities or areas where there happen to be small pockets of Roma as “hubs for traveling crime families.”

Virginia Training Academy Director Speaks

Many former and current hosts of Nolte’s training did not respond or declined to comment on the content he teaches in his class. Mike Harvey, the Director of the Rappahannock Regional Justice Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia, agreed to an interview.

Harvey: “It’s been several years now that he has changed it to ‘European organized crime groups.’ I’ve not sat through his entire training, but I have been in there, and I have not personally seen any overtly racist or derogatory comments towards any particular group of people other than just stating that, you know, with this type of organized crime these are the groups that tend to engage in it.”

Harvey: “This is an advanced level training, this is not a training that brand new officers get, and all of these classes are prefaced with, you know, obviously if you are Italian it does not mean that you are part of the mob, but the Italian mafia is typically made up of people of Italian descent. You know, it’s not being a racist thing, it’s just this is what it is … When you talk about criminal street gangs, whether it is an Aryan Nation Gang, or the Latin Kings, or the Bloods, or the Crips, you talk about who is typically in there, and you give what that person typically looks like.”

UR: “Do you think for a minority group that’s not very large or well-known in the United States, that having the only education that law enforcement officers have about Romani people being organized crime groups could make the entire scenario in which an officer interacts with a Romani person start off on a negative footing?”

Harvey: “Well again, I have been in there when he starts the class off, and he does talk about that this is not the Romani people, this is a very small subset that operates this way, and you know it is a very specific type of crime that we typically do not see outside of that type of organized criminal group.”

UR: “So the types of scams that are being run are not very common outside of Romani or ‘transient’ individuals?”

Harvey: “Correct, yes.”

Following this interview, RRCJA director Mike Harvey responded over email asking for another opportunity to talk about the class Nolte was scheduled to host, and to follow up about public concerns surrounding the course.

“So listen, after our last conversation I got off the phone and I started doing some some digging to see what the concerns were, because honestly from a law enforcement training perspective I just saw this as another class on an organized crime group that happened to be associated with a particular ethnicity, and we have those classes all the time, so I wasn’t truly understanding and grasping what you were telling me.”

“But y’know I pride myself in being a progressive academy director, a progressive type of person, and I don’t want to be offering things here at the academy that are seen in a negative light by the community at large … I don’t know research you’ve done on me or the things I’ve done here at the academy, but we had a very similar situation to this in 2014, and there’s a few articles out there, where a gentleman by the name of John Guandolo was teaching a class on Islamic Terrorism.”

“Of course how he framed it though was that all followers of Islam must engage in terrorist activity against non-believers. I quashed that class really really quickly. It became a huge stink and it was picked up by AP and National News, so I agree with you. I won’t tolerate those types of classes and just in full transparency we were planning on having this class again in October and I have instructed my staff to cancel it and not have anymore of these classes.”

RRCJA director Mike Harvey

Evading Accusations of Racism and Racial Profiling

With the increase of attention received by NABI and Nolte, the two parties have attempted to shift the paradigm from appearing to be the racial profiling that it is to a model similar to that of organized crime or transnational crime. The way that NABI and Nolte have tried to help law enforcement to avoid accusations of profiling is by attempting to create a distinction between the fictionalized “g*psy lifestyle” and Roma, much in the same way that law enforcement have in the past distinguished between organized crime groups and the ethnicities that typically make them up. By creating this distinction, NABI can justify the profiling of Roma, regardless of whether or not the Romani individuals they are profiling are involved in crime, organized or otherwise.

One of the issues presented in researching this topic and verifying the facts is that there is little to no publicly available data about crime committed by Romani people in the United States, making Nolte and NABI’s claims entirely unverifiable and providing them a unique position of power to make these claims of transnational crime, and of the efficacy of Nolte and NABI’s tactics, further allowing them to racialize these crimes without resistance.

Cristina, one of the cohosts of the Roma Unraveled podcast, said they saw the crimes as “ones of convenience and desperation” and noted Roma people are “profiled and over-policed.”

“These crimes that are attributed to us [in the flier] are ones of convenience and desperation. Wherever you have poor people, you’re going to have crimes like that, and especially since there are so many poor Roma in the US, it seems like profiling and over policing. There are so many white people in the US that commit these crimes. Considering Romani people around the world are victims of police brutality, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s happening here.”

The Database of Romani Individuals

One of the primary resources utilized by officers that have attended Nolte and NABI’s courses is, in Nolte’s own words, “a data base [sic] containing suspects of all Gypsy descents,” that is hosted and maintained by NABI.

Pages from Nolte’s database of people of Romani descent obtained by Unicorn Riot. (Personal information blurred out.)

This database includes a denotation as to whether the individual is Romani through a letter “G” for g*psy or “W” for white, their sex, a physical description, their Social Security number, arrest report numbers labeled by agency if there are any, and/or a reason that they should be investigated. Vehicles and sensitive intelligence tracking numbers from the FBI and NCIC (National Crime Information Center) were also included.

One man was logged in the database under a “feud” heading after a charge was levied by a relative.

In the case of the sample obtained by Unicorn Riot, one Romani individual’s listed reason for being in the database was for pawning an expensive watch.

The database sample obtained by Unicorn Riot also includes a list of license plate numbers from family members of “suspects” in NABI’s database that were obtained by law enforcement members of NABI stalking a Romani wedding.

Encapsulating the Roma experience, the other cohost of Roma Unraveled, Fen Kovach said:

“We are being labeled as Gypsy, a slur that was used to dehumanize, enslave, oppress, and genocide of our people. We are Romani. Racial profiling endangers our existence. Our community and culture are being painted as criminals simply for existing … Many Romani people are American Born citizens, but there are also plenty of us who are immigrants. Being criminalized and viewed as thieves simply for being Romani is a danger to our stability in this country. This is one of the reasons we’ve been chased out of so many countries, and when you’re not a citizen the fear of deportation because of unjust criminalization and profiling is very stressful and present in our day to day lives. This kind of training being allowed in the justice system leads to the loss of our culture – we teach our children to hide being Romani and to shame our facial features because they get us incarcerated or killed. We want to trust the police, and to assimilate into general society, we are law abiding people – but when the police are trained to see us as criminals, how can they see us as human first?”

Fen Kovach, Cohost of Roma Unraveled

Additional Documents

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