By Alex Emslie
Updated 7:25 p.m. Thursday, March 31:
A new group of San Francisco police officers traded bigoted text messages in 2014 and 2015, expanding the number of officers accused of making overtly racist, homophobic and sexist statements.
District Attorney George Gascón said Thursday that the San Francisco Police Department delivered some 5,000 pages of evidence to his office in late 2015 as part of criminal investigation, and that evidence contained the offensive texts.
“The messages are very clearly talking about African Americans and using the ‘N word’ repeatedly,” Gascón said. “They’re talking about members of the LGBT community also in a very disparaging fashion, and in the context of the conversation, they’re obviously intended to be racist in nature or homophobic. But again, we’ve only scratched the surface.”
Gascón said he couldn’t divulge the details of the criminal investigation that netted the offensive messages or the names of the officers involved.
But the Police Department said in a written statement Thursday afternoon that the texts emerged through its internal investigation of Officer Jason Lai.
A woman accused Lai last August of raping her while he was off duty. SFPD said last week that there was insufficient evidence to prove a sexual assault charge, but Lai was charged with six misdemeanor counts of unlawfully using police department records. Lt. Curtis Liu — who has since retired — is also under investigation for allegedly alerting Lai of the internal probe against him.
Both Lai and Liu swapped offensive texts, according to the Police Department, as did two other unnamed officers, one of whom has also since left the SFPD.
“As part of the criminal investigation, the Department searched cell phone records of the involved members and determined that four of those members had sent text messages containing reprehensible racial and homophobic remarks,” SFPD’s statement says. “The Department acted immediately in suspending officers involved in these text messages and referring the matter to the Police Commission for discipline up to and including termination.”
Three additional unnamed officers “received single questionable text messages from Officer Lai … but did not send any questionable messages,” according to the SFPD. “The investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring [disciplinary] charges against the officers.”
Gascón said these newly discovered messages were sent in 2014 through late-2015, indicating that officers continued to swap inappropriate messages even after a similar but unrelated scandal broke last March.
The earlier batch of messages were made public in a federal court filing concerning former SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger, and all the messages were recovered from his personal cell phone as part of a federal criminal investigation.
That original scandal was dubbed “Textgate” by a black and minority SFPD officers’ group. One of the text message exchanges targeted the group’s president, Sgt. Yulanda Williams, using slurs for both African-Americans and women.
Suhr attempted to fire eight of the officers involved and discipline others, but nine of them successfully challenged that discipline in superior court. A judge ruled in December that the department had allowed a one-year statute of limitations for disciplining officers to expire before pursuing the case. The officers remain on paid leave as the city appeals the ruling.
Prosecutors recently began to discover this second batch of text messages with repeated use of “the N word,” Gascón said, and derogatory language about “members of the LGBT community.”
“I think that some of the language was referring to other members of the SFPD as well,” he said.
Gascón said he sent a letter to SFPD Chief Greg Suhr Wednesday alerting him to the texts and outlining his concerns. He declined to provide a copy of the letter, saying it contained the officers’ names and other confidential information. He said Thursday afternoon that he had not received a response from the department.
That response came from Suhr a couple hours later in the form of a letter that was shared widely with reporters.
In his response, in which “DA Gascón” is crossed out and replaced with a handwritten “George,” Suhr wrote that the department became aware of the offensive text messages on Aug. 8 of last year, and SFPD told the DA’s office about them multiple times:
Once the Department identified the officers involved, I immediately placed these officers on suspension. We repeatedly notified your office of the existence of the text messages on September 21, 2015, October 6, 2015, November 2, 2015, and in January 2016. For your information, these contacts and notifications are documented in the chronological record of investigation, as well as emails.
For you to suggest that you discovered the text messages through your own criminal investigation would be disingenuous. This is not new information as our offices have been working closely on this case with at least three members of your staff to ensure the fair administration of justice. My Department is fully committed to the fair administration of justice, and to that end, has provided information and materials relating to the allegations during this cooperative effort.
This latest revelation of more SFPD officers swapping bigoted messages comes after Gascón’s response to the previous scandal sparked a feud with the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
Gascón convened a blue ribbon panel to investigate bias in the SFPD.
The current and former association presidents recently accused Gascón of making racist comments, himself, at a dinner in 2010, and they have said the blue ribbon panel lacks the authority to prosecute officers.
“The San Francisco Police Officers’ Association condemns the appalling racist behavior committed by a handful of officers,” POA President Martin Halloran said in a written statement Thursday afternoon about the new text messages. “They have disgraced the uniform and their profession.”
Halloran similarly condemned the previous messages, but later confirmed that a board controlling the POA’s legal defense fund voted to pay for the officers’ attorneys. He said that was to enforce the statute of limitations and other legal protections state law grants peace officers.
“This conduct will not be tolerated in the SFPD, nor in the POA,” Halloran wrote Thursday. “Chief Suhr has the full support of the POA to take appropriate disciplinary action that protects the due process rights of the officers.”
Gascón said the latest batch of bigoted messages point to a broader cultural problem in the department.
“A substantial number of officers in the San Francisco Police Department feel very comfortable displaying very racist and homophobic behavior,” Gascón said. “This happened before, during and after the previous scandal, which shows these individuals really didn’t care.”
Gascón said his office would begin a probe of arrests and prosecutions that involved the most recently implicated officers under a similar process that last year flagged some 4,000 arrests for review.