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San Francisco police texting scandal: How can police root out racism?

One veteran SFPD police officer has resigned and 13 more are under investigation after racist and homophobic texts came to light during a federal investigation.

The March 17 announcement by the San Francisco Police Department that it is expanding a probe into offensive text messages by four officers to include 10 more is expanding the nationwide dialogue over racism in police departments.

The racist and homophobic text messages came to light after the disclosure that former police Sgt. Ian Furminger – who was recently convicted of federal corruption charges – had exchanged comments with four officers in 2011 and 2012. The texts became public March 13, when federal prosecutors included them in a court filing in the sergeant’s case. 

The widening of the case is being seen as a further example of the need for the public and police watchdog groups to pay attention to the culture that goes on behind the blue wall of silence. 

“This is further evidence that American policing has not come as far as some thought since Rodney King and we need to ramp up assessment of the screening of [police] recruits to weed out such attitudes before such people are trained,” says Mary Powers, founder of the National Coalition on Police Accountability. “That this has happened in one of America’s most diverse cities is unfortunate evidence that such bias and ignorance is more widespread than we know.”

In one text message, prosecutors say, Furminger asked an unidentified officer if he should be worried that the African-American husband of one of his former's wife’s friends had come to his house.

The officer texted back: “Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its not against the law to put an animal down.”

Albie Esparza, chief spokesman for the SFPD, says the text messages were private and only came to the department's notice because of the FBI’s involvement in an unrelated matter.

Mr. Esparza says the department gives more cultural training than any department in the country – 40 hours, with refresher training every two years – and that Police Chief Greg Suhr pushes hard for recruits that have lived in San Francisco, who understand its diverse neighborhoods by having spent time there. He says Mr. Suhr has removed the four officers from public contact and is seeking their termination within 30 days.

One of the officers involved, 23-year veteran Michael Robison, resigned on Wednesday, his attorney told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The chief doesn’t want any dishonest officers or biased policing,” Esparza says.

But some say this episode goes further than a few officers in the SFPD – or indeed, the SFPD itself. 

“Just check out social media: People post racist, sexist, homophobic things with regularity…. The issue is being framed as if this is an exceptional occurrence, when it is not,” says Gordon Coonfield, director of graduate studies in communication at Villanova University, in an e-mail. “These texts should not be dismissed as the behavior of ‘racist’ individuals. That allows the SFPD to proceed as if nothing were wrong. In fact, these are evidence that something is indeed wrong — and it is wrong all over.”

Other criminal justice experts say the episode spotlights the need for education about the unconscious mental processes that lead to “implicit bias,” discriminatory biases based on implicit stereotypes or attitudes. 

“Implicit biases are fascinating because they produce personal behavior that diverges from someone’s endorsed principles and beliefs,” says Phil Stinson assistant professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “Research into implicit bias has shown that when a person with such implicit biases forms new personal connections with someone who is a member of the other group – such as a person of a different race – implicit attitudes and biases toward that other group change rapidly and dramatically.”

He and others point out that many law enforcement agencies – for example, the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin – are actively including implicit bias training into their in-service training programs for police departments.

Former police officer Tod Burke, now a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, says the key is to understand the difference between “bias” and “prejudice.”

“I teach my classes that bias is something you think and prejudice is something you act on. Almost everyone has some kind of bias, but we have to learn how to not act on it,” he says.

He adds that although this kind of training is growing, the problem that needs to be worked on most is police culture. 

“It’s one thing to come out of the police academy with trained notions in your head, and quite another to act on them consistently within an established milieu of which you are at the bottom,” says Professor Burke.

Some observers have posited that it is typical behavior for any group of workers to try to develop an inside patois, or way of speaking, that becomes normalized over time. In the police realm, that insider talk often takes on a tough-guy or macho attitude.

“Cop culture is built around an us-versus-them mentality. Then the question is: How do we change that?” says Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division for New Mexico. “How [do you] reassign the duty of loyalty from fellow cops to the citizens they serve?”

Mr. Jacobsen says that, while painful for police departments to endure, scandals like the one in San Francisco could ultimately help further that cultural shift. 

“One thing that might actually be useful is a media explosion sufficient to make cops realize that it is in the best interests of the department itself, and therefore of its employees, to expose and expel such people before their disgustingness becomes public knowledge.”

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