Paula Lively/flickr

This morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that three individuals, including an aide to California’s attorney general, were arrested for impersonating police officers. Actual law enforcement caught on after they were solicited by a group calling itself the Masonic Fraternal Police Department (MFPD).

The story has left people with a lot of questions, like: What's the deal with Masons? And do they really have a secret police force?

We have some answers.

What do Masons do?

As a group? Not much, anymore. We asked Terry Mendez, chief communications officer for the Masons of California. He directed us to the group’s website, which says Masons now mostly provide financial support to other aging members, perform some community service, and then just kind of hang out in their regalia, which looks like this.

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Basically, it’s a fraternity for adult men.

What did they used to do? That is the subject of a host of unprovable histories. The most common contention from mason groups themselves is that their members played active roles in organizing things like the American and French Revolutions, but even they are reluctant to claim these events constituted masonic conspiracies. Masonic groups also claim at least a dozen presidents, including George Washington, both Roosevelts, and Gerald Ford. There is a gigantic George Washington Masonic National Monument in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Is there a secret Masonic police force? What about the Knight’s Templar?

In an emailed statement, the Masons of California, the state’s official masonic body, said they have no affiliation with the Masonic Fraternal Police Department or the three individuals who were arrested.

George Braatz, executive secretary for the MSANA, said masons have no national security or justice division of masons.

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The L.A. Times also mentioned the MFPD claimed a connection to the Knight’s Templar. The Knights were a Christian order of nobles that existed for just 200 years before they were disbanded by the Vatican in the early 1300s. Some Masons say they are descended from Templars. A modern version exists, but they say they have no connection to the old order. A spokesman for that group did not immediately respond to comment about their connection to the MFPD.

So, we’re not secretly surrounded by Masons?

That was a contention for many centuries. In 1852, for instance a New York Times stringer warned that freemasonry now covered Ireland with an “invisible, invincible network” that allowed its members to commit crimes with impunity.

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But in the U.S., at least, membership appears to be falling fast. The Masonic Service Association of North America (MSANA) claims there are now 1.25 million members in the U.S., a 34-percent drop from 2003 (Canada has about 78,000). Pennsylvania has the highest total at 102,000.

However, there remain Freemasons in positions of power, although how their Masonry dictates their governing is mostly unknowable. The President of Uruguay, for instance, is one according to AFP.

Can I join?

Yes. But only men can. All it takes is finding your local lodge and filling out a petition or application.  The sister group for women is called Eastern Star. There are also youth versions for boys (DeMolay International) and girls (Rainbow for Girls and Job’s Daughters).

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You can download the app from the Google Play store that will find the nearest lodge here.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.