Update: Woburn Police announced on Monday, Oct. 17, that John Donnelly resigned from the department. The department’s internal affairs investigation is ongoing, according to Chief Robert F. Rufo Jr.

The Middlesex County District Attorney’s office announced Friday that it is launching an investigation into any pending or closed cases involving Woburn police officer John Donnelly. The move came after the department placed the officer on paid leave for his alleged involvement in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, appearing alongside prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer.

“These allegations are incredibly disturbing, and they fall so far short of what communities have a right to expect,” DA Marian Ryan told GBH News in an interview Friday.

Ryan said her office will investigate whether any cases were compromised by Donnelly’s involvement. The DA is also asking the public to come forward with any complaints or reports of troubling encounters with the officer.

Officials say if the Charlottesville allegations are found true, Donnelly will be removed from the force. Experts on extremism say the case shows the need for thorough vetting of law enforcement officials at the local level. Some also saw this as an opportunity for the nascent police reform agency, Massachusetts’ Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, to lead in holding officers accountable.

Donnelly was put on paid leave on Thursday just hours before the Huffington Post published an investigation alleging a record of extremist views and conduct.

In a joint statement, Woburn Police Chief Robert F. Rufo Jr. and Mayor Scott Galvin said they took action as soon as the department was told about Donnelly’s alleged involvement. At the time of the Charlottesville rally, Donnelly was a reserve officer with the department, the statement said.

“What was said and done in Charlottesville is in direct opposition to the core values of the Woburn Police Department, to serve all members of the community equally and treat them with respect and dignity,” Rufo wrote.

Galvin echoed those remarks, adding that the city “is taking these allegations seriously by investigating the incident thoroughly.”

Donnelly declined to comment through his attorney, Leigh Panettiere.

The HuffPost investigation paints a disturbing picture of a law enforcement figure who played a key role in the Aug. 11-12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that captured international attention. Protesters chanted slogans like “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us” as they marched through town with tiki torches. The second day, counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed when a rally-goer plowed his car into the crowd.

The HuffPost report includes a video of a man who appears to be Donnelly at the rally, standing in front of Spencer. He says on camera that he was at the rally to “[protect] this guy,” apparently referring to Spencer. The report also includes copies of antisemitic and racist chat room posts attributed to Donnelly.

Long investigations and legal hurdles

Experts told GBH News that the discovery of Donnelly’s apparent involvement more than five years after the rally speaks to how difficult — but critical — it can be to root out extremism from within law enforcement’s ranks.

The case could also turn the spotlight back onto the POST Commission, a state agency formed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the recent push for police reform. City officials said they would call on the commission to take further action against Donnelly if the allegations were substantiated.

“It's very hard to refute or ignore — certainly can't ignore at all — the allegation or some of the evidence that exists right now,” said Greg Ehrie, the vice president of law enforcement and security with the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization.

Ehrie pointed out there could be legal hurdles to removing an officer based on what he does outside of work, referring to cases in which officers were reinstated with higher pay or received a large settlement from the department if they were improperly terminated. He applauded the Woburn department’s move to closely investigate.

"How do we maintain that trust with the community, but also make sure that this hate — this extremism — is not growing within a police force?"
Greg Ehrie, ADL vice president

Carla Hill, who also works with the ADL as the Center on Extremism’s director of investigative research, said the online landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years.

“A lot of extremists ... were on Facebook or on the mainstream platforms and really easy to identify,” she said. “In fact, in the lead up to ‘Unite the Right,’ there was a Facebook event page and hundreds of people said they were going.”

With an explosion in niche social media platforms, Hill and Ehrie say it’s become more difficult to trace individuals’ activities.

“Do you know where to look?” Ehrie said. “It’s a really enormous undertaking when you think about it. And it comes down to, in a lot of cases, who has the funding to do this?”

Police in riot gear push in on a small group of men, one at the center wearing sunglasses and a button-down shirt, yelling
White nationalist Richard Spencer, center, and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police as they attempted to hold a rally in Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Getty Images North America

Salem Police Chief Lucas Miller said that social media is the “800-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to vetting potential hires.

“It provides a tremendous resource for really looking at who people are,” he said. “So one of the things that we try to do — and try quite aggressively — is review somebody's entire social media history for signs that they ... might not be compatible with our job.”

Miller added that there’s more pressure to quickly make hires in the face of shortages of police officers. Since he became police chief last year, Miller said the Salem police department has, at times, been short 10 to 15 officers out of its full force of 95.

“It creates a real kind of drive to get people hired as quickly as possible — and, of course, that flies in the face of properly vetting officers,” Miller said. “I think every police chief faces this, but we have to be sure not to compromise standards in any way, despite being shorthanded.”

Officers found to not meet those standards could face repercussions from the POST Commission. Its first members were appointed a year and a half ago, and are charged with setting up certification standards for officers and investigating abuse claims, among other responsibilities.

“This is almost a textbook case for [decertification],” Ehrie said. “We’ve seen officers who have been accused — sometimes of crimes — and fired, relieved of their duties, banned from that department. And they just move on to the next department because there's really no record of that.”

Ehrie called the case a “litmus test” for how departments deal with evidence of extremism down the road.

“How do we maintain that trust with the community, but also make sure that this hate — this extremism — is not growing within a police force?” he said. “Because at a certain point ... if you keep letting that grow, eventually, it’s going to overtake groups and departments and kill you.”