By Alex Emslie
Update 4:50 p.m. Friday:
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said a captain is among seven officers who have been suspended and face being fired for trading bigoted text messages with a convicted former police sergeant.
“Their conduct is incompatible with that of a police officer and I believe causes them to fall below the minimum qualifications required,” Suhr told reporters today.
All of the text messages implicating a total of 14 officers were recovered from ex-SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger‘s cellphone during a federal criminal investigation. Furminger was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges in December, and federal prosecutors included a sampling of the texts in a March 13 filing opposing the former sergeant’s release on bail while he appeals.
The city’s Police Commission makes the final determination on all officer discipline greater than a 10-day suspension.
An additional officer, Michael Robison, resigned last month, or the chief would have recommended he be fired as well, according to the department. Suhr said another officer may resign today.
“I would imagine more of them, if not all of them, are considering the same thing,” he said.
Two more officers have been reassigned to duties that do not include contact with the public while they await a hearing before the Police Commission, according to the department. Suhr said he recommended discipline up to and including termination for the pair, but he said their one-off texts with Furminger did not rise to the level of bias displayed by the suspended officers.
“If you read the text messages, it’s not even close,” Suhr said. “The racial sentiment expressed in the others is not as clear, although it appears to be present in the other two, and I think it’s something the commission needs to hear.”
If you’re counting, that leaves four officers whose discipline Suhr said he will handle in-house. The chief said one officer texted Furminger that he was somewhere other than where he was assigned to be at the time.
The remaining three officers responded to texts from Furminger in a way they say was meant to be dismissive, Suhr said, “but they were not the kind of language that a police officer should be using, and all three … didn’t tell anybody of Mr. Furminger’s tone and character. And they were supposed to.”
Public Defender Jeff Adachi said he expects the greater number of police officers’ involvement to “significantly widen” his initial estimate that as many as 1,000 cases could be affected by proof that arresting or testifying officers harbor racial bias.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr announced Friday that eight SFPD officers have been suspended because of their roles in a racist and/or homophobic text messaging scandal that has rocked the department.
One of the suspended officers, however, has already resigned.
“Eight of the members engaged in text messages of such extreme bias, and Chief Suhr believes their conduct is incompatible with the duties of a police officer,” said an SFPD press release. “These officers’ text messages are of such despicable thinking that those responsible clearly fall below the minimum standards required to be a police officer.”
Their cases have been forwarded to the Police Commission, with the recommendation of termination.
Fourteen officers were the focus of an internal SFPD probe that is now complete. In addition to the eight who will be suspended, six other officers face lesser consequences.
Two officers who took part in “single texting events that included inflammatory texts” have been reassigned to non-public contact positions. Their cases have also been forwarded to the commission.
The four remaining officers also engaged in “single texting events” that violated department policy but didn’t involve hate speech. They’ll be disciplined by Suhr, who can suspend an officer without pay for up to 10 days.
On Thursday night, San Francisco criminal justice and community leaders traded criticism at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing addressing the scandal that has beset the SFPD since mid-March.
Foreshadowing today’s news, Suhr told the city’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee that the department’s internal investigation into 14 officers was on the verge of wrapping up.
“There will be suspensions,” Suhr said. “There will be more than a few officers referred to the Police Commission with a singular recommendation for termination. I cannot unring the bell on these texts. I am as disgusted by them as everyone should be.”
The SFPD is also reviewing the officer’s personal history questionnaires “to see if there’s any common denominator among them all that should have been a red flag, that should have been caught, that should have prevented them from being hired,” Suhr said.
Christine DeBerry, chief of staff in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, said a 10-year review of cases involving four officers so far identified turned up more than 3,000 arrests, about 1,600 of which resulted in prosecutors filing charges.
“The thing that we do not want is to conduct a look-back, go through 3,000 cases, and then in another year or two years find ourselves with another scandal on our desks and another situation we have to try and unravel,” she said.
The district attorney is asking the city for more money to fund a new task force on law enforcement misconduct, DeBerry said, and would like to see more transparency around police misconduct investigations, and swifter discipline.
“There’s too little discipline and too little consequence for misconduct that happens here in San Francisco,” she said. “It’s a very rare situation where somebody is fired for the kinds of misconduct. There are very few cases that are reported to us for misconduct and the discipline that’s meted out is rare, relatively weak and uncertain.”
Police commissioners have said they’ve fired seven police officers over the last several years, but California law requires details of individual officer discipline to be confidential.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi played two recordings of statements he said were from former clients recounting their experiences with convicted ex-SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger and another officer identified in the texting scandal, Noel Schwab.
Michael Gebreyesus told Adachi in one of the recorded conversations that Schwab arrested him for a misdemeanor in 2007, then repeatedly referred to African-Americans as “monkeys” and a racist slur.
“I’m getting mad right now just thinking about it,” Gebreyesus said on the recording.
Adachi also played a recording of a statement from Nora Wheeler, who he said is currently in a Ph.D. program in England. Wheeler said she was arrested and injured by Ian Furminger.
“I did follow through and file a complaint,” she said, but she was later told that photographs of her injuries no longer existed. “The evidence went missing,” she said.
Citing SFPD traffic stop data from 2013, Adachi said African-Americans are three times likelier to be pulled over in San Francisco than white people are. In general, Adachi said African-Americans were seven times more likely to be arrested than white people, according to state Department of Justice data. A 2012 study found African-Americans are arrested for felony drug possession in San Francisco at a rate 19 times higher than other races in San Francisco.
Suhr said narcotics arrest statistics are changing, down more than 85 percent last year.
“People who normally used to traffic in narcotics have now gone on to traffic in electronic goods,” Suhr said, noting an uptick in property crime across the state in the past year.
Supervisor Eric Mar pressed Suhr on whether the text messages are a “symptom of a much larger problem that needs to be addressed institutionally within the police department, and part of a culture within the police department.”
Suhr said law enforcement, like any profession, has a culture associated with it. He said the best way to change attitudes is by filling more than 300 new officer positions with “young people that are right-minded.”
“We need to be a police department that the community trusts and goes to and doesn’t see this small, half-a-percent of officers, or less, as indicative of San Francisco police officers,” Suhr said. He said the department is ramping up racial profiling and implicit, or subconscious, bias training.
Officers for Justice Peace Officers Association President Sgt. Yulanda Williams said the texts had left a “gaping wound” in the department. The association represents minority San Francisco police officers.
“I have officers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress, which is related to the ways they have been treated within the San Francisco Police Department,” she said.
Williams called on the city to call a meeting at which OFJ members could be debriefed, “So that our members can tell you how we felt, how we have been hurt by being a member of the San Francisco Police Department,” she said. “We risk our lives on a daily basis because we love to do this. We are here as your servants. However, for us to have been disrespected at this level is inexcusable.”
Board of Supervisors President London Breed closed the meeting with a suggestion for San Francisco criminal justice department heads.
“They need to all grow up and act like adults and figure out a way to work together so we can solve this problem,” Breed said.
Patricia Yollin of KQED contributed to this report.