By Alex Emslie
Texts recovered from a San Francisco police officer’s cellphone during a sexual assault investigation last year contained racist messages describing African-Americans as “barbarians” and “wild animals,” as well as derogatory descriptions of gay police officers.
Former Officer Jason Lai, who worked out of the department’s Taraval Station and resigned earlier this month, also texted racist slurs for Latinos, opined that “Indian ppl are disgusting” and compared an apparent homeless person to a cockroach who “won’t die.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi released some of the text messages (read below) Tuesday that were recovered from Lai’s cellphone during an SFPD internal affairs investigation. Investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove that Lai raped a woman at her home, as she alleged, but he was charged last month with six misdemeanors for unlawfully possessing and misusing confidential records.
“This is Officer Lai’s mindset,” Adachi said at a press conference. “And it shows a person who very casually makes racist and derogatory comments, talks about injury to the citizens that he is supposed to be serving. And most disturbingly, I think he does it in a way which to him seems to hold no consequences.”
Police Department investigators turned over records from Lai’s cellphone — as well as those from former Taraval Station Sgt. Curtis Liu and other officers implicated in the probe — to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in November. Prosecutors discovered the offensive texts among 44,000 pages of cellphone records in late March, when District Attorney George Gascón publicly announced their existence.
In the messages Adachi released Tuesday, Lai also joked about “a story I wrote today” as he shared a draft incident report about a rape investigation. In his text message, he referred to the apparent victim as “an idiot.”
“Don’t go to the house of some Hispanic guy and black guy that you don’t know,” an unidentified person texted Lai in an apparent response. “Don’t drink with them and don’t go into the bedroom with them and this shit wouldn’t have happened.”
“Lol amen,” Lai responded.
Adachi said Lai’s messages show not only that bigotry is widespread in the Police Department, but also that Lai’s prejudice affected his work.
“The Police Department has said, ‘Well, these are just statements that are being made off the cuff and opinions that are being thrown out there,’ ” Adachi said. “No, these are directly connected to the feelings that this officer has about the people that he’s serving and more particularly about people that he interacts with every day.”
The texts could also have far-reaching legal implications.
Overt prejudice can impact ongoing and previous criminal prosecutions if defendants can show an officer’s bias made them an unfair target for arrest or stretched probable cause. The public defender’s office has identified at least 207 cases in which Lai, Liu and a third officer who allegedly swapped inappropriate texts, Keith Ybarreta, participated. Like Lai and Liu, Ybarreta has also left the SFPD. A fourth officer was implicated, according to the Police Department, but has not been publicly identified. The officer has been suspended, and his or her case is pending before the Police Commission.
The latest offensive texts mark the second batch to emerge from the department in the past 13 months. The first round of bigoted messages came to light in a federal court filing in March 2015, throwing thousands of prosecutions into question.
Adachi is among a growing number of voices calling for an outside investigation of alleged systemic racism and civil rights violations in the Police Department.
The public defender last month asked California Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch a probe. Other calls for action have come from Gascón, members of the Board of Supervisors and the ACLU, which all have suggested a federal Department of Justice civil rights investigation. The feds are in town, conducting a lighter, nonbinding review of SFPD policies.
Lai’s scorn was not directed only at civilians. He also repeatedly refers to superior officers who are “528,” SFPD’s radio code for fire and an apparently coded slur for gay or lesbian officers. He also used noncoded slurs for gay people.
The texts Adachi released Tuesday span about nine months, from late October 2014 until early August 2015. On March 14, 2015, the day after the first round of racist San Francisco police texts was publicized, Lai appeared to get suspicious and traded texts with an unknown recipient about what text messages could be obtained with a search warrant.
“R U READING THIS IA?” he asked to no apparent response. “IA” is a reference to the department’s Internal Affairs Division, charged with investigating officer misconduct.
Eventually, internal affairs investigators did read his message.
Zoë Lew of KQED News contributed to this report.