SFPD’s Latest Racist Texting Scandal: Who Knew What and When?

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.
(Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

The latest batch of racist and homophobic text messages swapped by San Francisco police officers and revealed Thursday by the city’s district attorney are more than an embarrassment; they have serious legal repercussions for any prosecutions involving the officers who wrote them.

And the issue of how and when the Police Department notified the District Attorney’s Office of the latest inappropriate texts has become new fuel for a feud between the city’s top cop and top prosecutor.

After District Attorney George Gascón announced the existence of the bigoted texts and told reporters he’d only discovered them late last week, Police Chief Greg Suhr sent him a letter indicating that the Police Department told prosecutors about the text messages four times between September and January.

“For you to suggest that you discovered the text messages through your own criminal investigation would be disingenuous,” Suhr wrote. “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.”

Gascón replied Friday that Suhr was correct to indicate that SFPD internal affairs investigators had worked with the DA’s office on the sexual assault investigation of an officer (who SFPD has identified as Jason Lai). But:

“It is entirely inaccurate to indicate that there was a collaborative effort in the investigation of any racist and homophobic text messages,” Gascón wrote, adding that his office received some 44,000 pages of cell phone records — including text messages — in November. “At no time were we informed that the text messages from the phone associated with [redacted] or his girlfriend contained any potential racist or homophobic text messages.”

Gascón wrote that getting additional text messages seized from a lieutenant — who is likely Lt. Curtis Liu — “became a point of contention” between SFPD criminal investigators and his office’s special prosecutions unit. Those texts were finally produced on March 17, Gascón wrote, adding that they prompted him to notify the Police Department Wednesday and the public on Thursday of the racist and homophobic messages.

“I am hopeful that any future incidents that jeopardize the fair administration of justice will be disclosed from the outset to both myself and the public,” Gascón wrote. “Delaying disclosure of such misconduct only adds to the current climate of distrust. It is my sincere hope that the San Francisco Police Department will change its practices and usher in a culture that promotes transparency and accountability.”

The revelation of a new batch of racist and homophobic texts comes as Police Department and city leadership try to pull the SFPD out of an abyss of scandal, not only involving previously revealed bigoted texts, but also the fatal shootings of black and Latino residents and a consistently astronomical racial disparity in arrests.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said Friday he was disappointed and frustrated to learn of a new batch of text messages that reportedly, according to District Attorney George Gascón, liberally employ racist slurs for African-Americans and disparage members of the LGBT community.

“This is the second batch, and maybe there’s a third,” Lee said in an interview Friday. “Our public should never be disgraced with the kind of attitudes reflected in these text messages.”

He said he will schedule meetings with police employee groups, including the main officers’ union as well as the Asian Officers Association, Officers for Justice, the Police Pride Alliance and others.

“These officers seem to feel that they could talk in this way and get away with it,” Lee said of at least four officers most directly linked to the latest scandal. “That tells me that there’s some culture going on here.”

Lee declined to wade into a back-and-fourth between Gascón and Suhr concerning how prosecutors became aware of the texts, and when.

“The main thing is not to fester over who knew what when,” Lee said. “It’s when we discovered it, it is our obligation to end it, to serve up examples of why this is bad for the city, for the police force and for the respect of all the other officers that do their best.”

But who knew what when is of great concern to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. He said in an interview Friday that Gascón had a legal obligation to turn over evidence of the texts to relevant defense attorneys as soon as prosecutors became aware of them.

“The district attorney says that he just found out about this, yet the chief of police told me that he informed the district attorney six months ago,” Adachi said. “It’s a big question because the district attorney, once they have evidence like this of bias, under the law they have to turn it over to the defense because it affects the credibility of these witnesses, and that was not done.”

Adachi’s been writing his own letters in the wake of the latest bigoted text messages. He’s asking the district attorney for a comprehensive list of every case that involved the officers who sent or received bigoted text messages. He said last year’s texting scandal resulted in the dismissal of more than a dozen prosecutions.

“I’ve also made it clear that we want to see all the correspondence between the DA and the chief as to when they became aware of these incidents,” he said. “We don’t know at this point how many cases could be affected.”

Retired California Superior Court Judge Ladoris Cordell said it was very disheartening to learn of a new batch of bigoted texts. She’s been serving on a special panel Gascón convened last year after the first text messaging scandal came to light. She and two other retired judges have been reviewing some 4,000 incident reports prepared by the officers involved, looking for any indications that the overt bigotry displayed in their text messages spilled into their decisions to make arrests.

“It raises the question of now do we have to expand and look at the police reports dating back for these particular officers,” she said in an interview Friday. “Or maybe it’s time to just throw up our hands and say, we don’t need to do this, that what’s going on in the Police Department is such that we just need to pull back, take stock and make some major change.”

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