Officials Condemn Racist Text Messages Swaped By San Francisco Police Officers

(Thomas Hawk/flikr)

(Thomas Hawk/flikr)

By Alex Emslie

Update, 5:15 p.m. March 16:

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has joined the city’s top prosecutor, public defender and police chief in condemning racist and homophobic texts that a court filing shows were exchanged among a group of San Francisco police officers.

The texts were disclosed Friday in a motion involving former San Francisco police Sgt. Ian Furminger, who is facing 41 months in prison after being convicted in December on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors opposing Furminger’s motion to remain free on bail bolstered their argument by including transcripts of texts between him and former SFPD colleagues.

The messages contain various disparaging references to African-Americans, Latinos, Filipinos and gay people. Some of them were directed at specific officers.

Sgt. Yulanda Williams is president of Officers for Justice, an association of SFPD officers formed in 1968 to advocate for the civil rights of minorities, women and LGBT people. One of the text exchanges that refers to her uses a derogatory phrase offensive to both black people and women.

“It was rather shocking to know that there were people working around me that had this type of ideology,” Williams said in an interview with KQED’s Sara Hossaini. Williams added that she is acquainted with Furminger and one of the officers under investigation, Michael Robison.

“When I read it, it was very apparent to me that the messages were that of Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy ideology,” she said. “And I found them to be despicable, sickening, unacceptable, heart-wrenching conduct by members of a noble profession of policing.”

Officers for Justice released a statement today calling for complete transparency and expressing suspicion that “Textgate” goes beyond the four officers who San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr confirmed are under investigation for exchanging the messages with Furminger.

Suhr has said the department will pursue disciplinary action against the officers and conduct a review of its hiring and training policies in light of the disclosures.

“It is both shocking and disturbing to hear that four San Francisco police officers are under investigation for such heinous and despicable statements,” Mayor Lee said in a statement Monday. “The content of these text messages displays a bias that is incompatible with the values of our City and incompatible with the ability to perform sworn duties as a police officer.”

Lee said that he expected the officers involved to be fired “if these statements are attributable to any San Francisco police officer.”

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the problem of racial bias in the SFPD goes beyond the four officers currently under investigation. He’s calling for a federal probe much like the U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department released earlier this month.

“These texts display deep-rooted racism within members of the San Francisco Police Department,” Adachi said in an interview Monday. “Some of these texts are even more outrageous and hurtful than some of the emails from the Ferguson Police Department report.”

Adachi cited a city report from 2013 that found 56 percent of San Francisco’s jail inmates are African-American, despite making up just 6 percent of the city’s residents.

“What is the training that officers receive, and why do we have such a disproportionate rate of arresting and jailing African-Americans in San Francisco?” Adachi asked.

District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement he is “deeply disturbed” by the offensive messages.

“There is no place for bigotry in San Francisco,” the statement said. “In order to ensure our criminal justice system is fair and equitable, my office is conducting an immediate assessment of every prosecution within the past ten years where these officers were involved.”

Update, 11:30 a.m. March 16:

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr says the department will examine hiring and training policies in the wake of the disclosure of racist and homophobic text messages swapped among several police officers.

“We will look at the hiring/background processes to identify how anyone capable of statements of such extreme bias could be hired as police officers in the first place,” Suhr wrote in a text reply to questions from KQED. “We have training scheduled on implicit bias and we will be doing more.”

Attorneys representing three of four San Francisco officers under investigation for their part in the offensive texts have confirmed their clients’ identities.
“They’re mortified to be involved in anything like this,” said defense attorney Tony Brass, who is representing Officers Michael Robison and Michael Celis. “They understand that this is going to have dire consequences for them both professionally and in the public view.”

The texts were made public in a court filing Friday by federal prosecutors opposing a bid by former San Francisco police Sgt. Ian Furminger to remain free on on bail while he appeals a conviction for fraud and conspiracy. The filing (read below) discloses only some of the text messages collected from Furminger’s cell phone.

The texts repeatedly use epithets referring to black people, as well as disparaging references to Mexican and Filipino people. Some texts from Furminger also include slurs about gay people.

Brass said he doesn’t yet know which texts were sent or received by which officers.

“There’s four police officers involved and the one person that is identified as the hub of this is Ian Furminger,” Brass said. “But whether Mike Celis or Mike Robison are involved in the ones that are quite shocking, I don’t know.”

Brass said his first meeting with Police Department internal affairs investigators is scheduled for March 25, and his clients believe they could be fired.

Alison Wilkinson represents Officer Rain Daugherty. She confirmed via email that her client is under investigation for texts he traded with Furminger.

“Officer Daugherty is appropriately ashamed by his impulsive and insensitive banter,” Wilkinson wrote, “and accepts full responsibility for the content of those text messages that he sent, which are by no means a reflection of his true character or his style of policing.”

A department spokeswoman said Suhr would recommend all four officers be fired if the investigation proved racial bias. The final decision lies with the city’s Police Commission.

The San Francisco Chronicle identified the fourth officer under investigation as Noel Schwab. His attorney did not return calls for comment.

Mark Goldrosen is the latest in a series of attorneys representing Furminger.

“Ian Furminger is not a racist or homophobe,” Goldrosen wrote in an email. “His closest friends, both at work and in his social life, include many people of different races and sexual orientations.”

Furminger’s motion for bail pending appeal presents a dedicated, veteran police officer who coaches youth sports and volunteers at school functions, including as a physical education teacher for his children’s schools. One of the texts released Friday references Furminger’s concern about black children attending his son’s school.

“Furminger actively promotes the fantasy that he is a person of character,” federal prosecutors wrote in their response to the motion. “Although these sort of overtly racist views sadly still are expressed in some communities, it is shocking and appalling to find a police officer in San Francisco who would give voice to them. Furminger’s willingness to do so — which exemplifies his erratic and anti-social behavior — should be taken into account.”

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