SFPD Text Messaging Scandal Expands; Public Defender Seeks Police Reform

(Alex Emslie/KQED)

(Alex Emslie/KQED)

Alex Emslie
KQED

The number of criminal convictions and pending cases affected by the growing group of San Francisco police officers involved in a text messaging scandal could increase “exponentially” as the credibility of more officers is called into question, a spokeswoman for the city’s public defender said Tuesday.

The San Francisco Chronicle broke the news that an additional 10 SFPD officers are the subject of an internal affairs investigation for allegedly exchanging inappropriate texts with former Sgt. Ian Furminger. That’s in addition to four officers previously known to be under investigation for trading racist and homophobic messages with Furminger, who was convicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges last year.

Their attorneys confirmed the original four officers under investigation are Michael Robison, Michael Celis, Rain Daugherty and Noel Schwab.

They’ve been reassigned to positions that keep them out of public contact, according to the department. That’s not the case with the newly discovered group of 10 officers, San Francisco Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said.

“There were 10 officers that came to the POA seeking representation” about two weeks ago, Halloran said. “I do not believe that these officers are under investigation at the same scope or the same level as the initial four officers, because these 10 additional officers have not been reassigned.” He said they’re still serving out in the field.

Halloran said he does not know why the new group of officers is under investigation, but a source close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the probe stems from text messages recovered from Furminger’s personal cellphone. The source cautioned against “painting those additional officers with the same brush as the other four,” adding that messages involving the latest group of officers may have been inappropriate, but not racist or homophobic.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr did not respond when asked by KQED to comment on the increasing number of officers under investigation.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi said his office, along with the district attorney, is beginning to review a decade of prosecutions involving the original four officers — estimated to be about 1,000 cases. He said they are looking at the facts of each individual case for instances when an African-American defendant disputed one of the officers’ accounts of a search, investigation or arrest.

“Officer credibility is key in any case,” Adachi said. “Where you have these officers who were principal players in these cases, and they have a record of being involved in this kind of horrible behavior, no prosecutor is going to want to put them on the stand. Those cases are likely going to be dismissed, and that’s what I’d expect from our district attorney.”

Public Defender’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Aparton said that number will likely grow when more comes out about the content of the texts involving the group of 10 officers. She said 792 cases were dismissed after Adachi’s office uncovered surveillance video from SRO hotels that appeared to show plainclothes officers conducting illegal searches. The videos led to a federal criminal investigation and the eventual indictment of Furminger and five other SFPD officers.

Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg said defendants seeking to overturn a past conviction typically face a very high legal hurdle.

“It’s not like the dramatic DNA exoneration evidence that you see in many of the publicized cases,” Weisberg said. “The newly discovered evidence is at best, not to minimize it, impeachment of the word of a police officer, where it may or may not have made a material difference in the case.”

But, he said, that doesn’t necessarily mean scores of past and pending prosecutions won’t be dismissed.

“Some cases may get reopened, maybe lots of cases will get reopened,” Weisberg said, “not because of formal legal appeals or post-conviction proceedings, but because the police department, District Attorney George Gascón, the city generally just decides, ‘We think it’s the right thing to do, and we the officials will go to the court and request a reopening and maybe even a dismissal in some cases.’ ”

Adachi is pressing the SFPD for policy changes following the scandal. The Racial Justice Committee of the Public Defender’s Office unveiled a 10-point plan for police reform Tuesday.

“We welcome the opportunity that this crisis presents,” committee co-chair Rebecca Young said. “It becomes a cancer that infects an entire neighborhood, where the people in the community do not like and profoundly mistrust the police, and that creates an officer safety issue as well as a health and safety issue for the people living in these communities.”

The committee highlighted three recommendations most directly linked to curbing the kind of racism exhibited in the texts. Young and her colleagues recommend a minimum 24 hours of training on implicit bias and its effects, including perspectives of people of color who have been unlawfully detained. They’re pushing for yearly reviews of all field training officers — experienced officers who train rookies — with a focus on any history of racial bias, excessive force or illegal search and seizures “to determine if they are fit to train other officers.”

The committee is also calling for the department to assign officers to patrol neighborhoods in which they live, and to attract more officers who are people of color to work and live in San Francisco.

For the union’s part, Halloran said the text messages do not reflect the views of the vast majority of SFPD officers. The POA released a video yesterday extolling San Francisco’s diverse police force in response to the scandal.

“The San Francisco Police Department is one of the most diverse in the United States of America,” he said. “The POA is appalled with those messages. I’m shocked and I’m sickened by them. It does not reflect on the hard-working men and women that are out on the streets 24/7 serving our public. This is a very, very small fraction of members that are caught up in this text messaging debacle.”

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