Officer Jason Lai was charged with two misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of criminal history information and four misdemeanor counts of misuse of confidential Department of Motor Vehicles information, … more
A new group of San Francisco police officers was implicated in exchanging bigoted text messages, fueling increased scrutiny of the city force and prompting a review of court cases handled by those officers for potential bias, authorities said Thursday.
District Attorney George Gascón said a “substantial number of racist and homophobic text messages” emerged during a recent criminal investigation, which Police Chief Greg Suhr identified as the sexual assault probe of a Taraval Station officer, Jason Lai, that began last year.
The messages, which allegedly included use of the racial slur “n—” and derogatory comments toward the LGBT community, were exchanged among at least four officers, Suhr said, including Lai and Lt. Curtis Liu, who also worked at Taraval but retired after being accused of obstructing the rape inquiry.
Gascón differed with Suhr, saying at least five officers had exchanged the messages. He said the messages were exchanged on the officers’ personal cell phones, but that it had not been determined if the texts were sent and received while the officers were on duty.
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The district attorney said there were dozens of messages in which “the use of the n-word is very prevalent.” The messages mocked the public outcry around an earlier racist-texting scandal in the police force, Gascón said, and it was “pretty clear” the comments weren’t made in jest.
“It’s not a slip of the tongue,” he said.
Three more officers were found in an internal affairs investigation to have received questionable text messages from Lai, but did not respond, Suhr said. He said each of the four officers who are directly implicated faces either termination proceedings or has already left the force.
‘I took swift action’
“As with any big organization, you’re going to have people who are not as you would have them be,” Suhr said. “As soon as I found out about it, I took swift action. I think all the honorable men and women who serve this department know I give no quarter to this kind of thing.
“The message from the top has been clear,” Suhr said. “This level of intolerance will not be tolerated.”
Police Sgt. Yulanda Williams, who is the president of a black officers’ association called Officers for Justice — and was belittled in the first batch of text messages — said she was frustrated to learn of more racist exchanges. She said the department’s leadership isn’t suited to handle the problem.
‘It’s extremely hurtful’
“Clearly, there seems to be some underlying issues that have still not been addressed,” Williams said. “I would never assume that every member of the San Francisco Police Department is involved because that would be the furthest thing from the truth. But for those of us who do not engage in this type of activity, it’s extremely hurtful and it’s extremely embarrassing. And it’s got to end.”
The messages are separate from a batch of bigoted texts that were allegedly exchanged in 2012 among 14 additional officers, which emerged last year and contributed to Gascón’s creation of a blue-ribbon panel to investigate systemic bias in the police force.
The earlier messages were discovered by federal authorities looking into allegations that plainclothes San Francisco officers divvied up money found during searches of drug dealers. Those messages — containing racist and antigay remarks calling black people “monkeys” and encouraging the killing of “half-breeds” — forced prosecutors to re-evaluate thousands of cases handled by those officers and dismiss 13.
Some officers in the earlier case resigned, and Suhr moved to fire most of those who remained. But the case unraveled in December when a judge allowed the officers to avoid discipline, concluding the Police Department waited too long to take action. The city is appealing the ruling.
The new text messages, which were not released, spanned from 2014 to late 2015, Gascón said.
He said his office was specifically told of the messages last week. But Suhr said the Police Department had alerted the district attorney’s office of their discovery in October, during the course of an investigation into a woman’s rape allegation against Lai.
That investigation came to a close last week with Lai being charged with six misdemeanor counts of misusing police databases. Police said investigators couldn’t find sufficient evidence to support the rape charge, but discovered the records violations during the probe.
Investigators are still looking into whether Liu lied and obstructed the rape investigation by contacting Lai when the woman sought medical treatment after the alleged assault and named a suspect, police said. Liu said he had called Lai as a joke because he thought the name given by the woman was a coincidence, but, according to investigators, he went on to lie to superiors about contacting Lai.
Lai was placed on unpaid leave during the sexual assault investigation, and remained on unpaid leave after he was charged. He has not commented on the case.
Upon learning of the new text messages, Suhr said he suspended the two other officers who were implicated. One is no longer with the department, the chief said, while the other is facing a Police Commission termination hearing. Suhr said Lai’s case will go before the Police Commission after his criminal case is concluded.
‘The credentials to joke’
Liu’s attorney, Tony Brass, identified Officer Keith Ybarreta as the officer making the majority of the allegedly derogatory comments about African Americans. Efforts to reach Ybarreta and his attorneys were not immediately successful Thursday, and an attorney for Lai declined to comment.
“Officer Ybarreta is married to an African American woman and they have children,” Brass said. “Perhaps because of that, Officer Ybarreta felt that he had the credentials to joke about those race issues.”
He said that although Liu did not move to discipline Ybarreta for the texts, he tried to stop him “as a friend.”
“Curtis Liu, once in a text documented by the Police Department, responded to Officer Ybarreta, ‘Stop. If it wasn’t for who you were married to, I would think you were a racist,’” Brass said.
The three officers who had only received messages are being investigated “as to whether they knew what they got,” Suhr said, because the texts they received “were not as explicit as the texts that were going on between the four.”
Prosecutors are reviewing past cases handled by the officers. City Public Defender Jeff Adachi said his office will do its own review of potentially “tainted” arrests, and he questioned why Suhr and Gascón didn’t come forward with the information about the texts sooner.
Both Gascón and Adachi suggested the police force has deeper cultural problems, with Gascón saying, “I believe that the majority of San Francisco police officers would not approve of this conduct, but there is a substantial minority that obviously feels very comfortable.”
Adachi said city residents deserve “equal justice,” and that police officials “must address the culture that lets racism fester in its ranks.”
‘Handful of officers’
The president of the officers’ union, Martin Halloran, condemned the “appalling racist behavior committed by a handful of officers,” saying some cops had disgraced their uniform and profession.
“To be a San Francisco police officer is a sacred trust,” he said. “When an officer violates that trust he or she must be held accountable. … The reprehensible actions by a few officers do not reflect the overall commitment and dedication of the men and women of this department who serve and protect this city and its residents.”