San Francisco moves to fire cops for racist texts: How deep the damage?

San Francisco prosecutors now have to decide whether racist and homophobic comments tainted as many as 1,000 criminal cases over the 10 years in which the officers testified. 

Jeff Chiu/AP
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr speaks during a news conference at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Feb. 27, 2014.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr is moving to fire seven police officers for sending each other racist and homophobic texts, the first step toward diffusing a scandal that has rocked one of America’s most ethnically diverse and gay-friendly cities.

To be sure, critics say text messages that ridiculed blacks, gays, Mexicans, and Filipinos point to the kind of institutional problems that have fueled criticism of police across the country in the wake of controversial shootings and videotaped incidents.

But more directly, San Francisco prosecutors now have to come to terms with a more practical and public safety-related impact of publicized police prejudice: whether the officers’ personal viewpoints ever shaded up to 1,000 criminal cases over 10 years in which they testified. Up to 120 such cases could be scrapped, according to Jeff Adachi, the city’s top public defender.

Primarily, findings of prejudice could undermine testimony the officers gave as part of their jobs. The text messages ‘‘are of such despicable thinking that those responsible clearly fall below the minimum standards required to be a police officer,’’ Chief Suhr said.

Critics call it disturbing that it took an outside criminal corruption investigation to unearth the texts, suggesting to some that such banter could be commonplace. Yet there’s also evidence that precinct-house racism, to the extent to which it exists, is relatively rare.

For example, police in Ferguson, Mo., on Friday released the names of those responsible for racist messages and jokes included in a Department of Justice report on the Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath. Those messages were not widely circulated, and they were shared among only three people in a police department of 56 officers. The findings seemed to support comments by Ferguson Mayor James Knowles that "actions taken by these individuals are in no way representative of the employees of the city of Ferguson."

But even if the hateful text messages unearthed in San Francisco don’t reflect police attitudes more broadly, they could certainly impact the trustworthiness of police more generally, observers say.

“The characterization of these hateful statements as innocent banter is dead wrong,” Mr. Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender, told the Los Angeles Times. “This casual dehumanization leads to real-life suffering and injustice. It foments a toxic environment in which citizens fear and distrust the police, brutality reigns, and good officers are less effective.”

Given such credibility stakes, the need to push for immediate action is understandable for police chiefs like Mr. Suhr in San Francisco. Four of the cases would go to a police review board to administer, and three others, whose inappropriate messages were not found to be hateful, will be fired by the chief himself.

The local police union, the San Francisco Police Officers Association, sided with the chief. “All these racist and homophobic text messages, if true, are disgraceful and humiliating to the community we serve,” the association said in a written statement.

The bulk of the cited texts were raw and disturbing. One of the tamer ones read: “It is worth every penny to live here [in the suburb of Walnut Creek] away from the savages.” 

Former officer Ian Furminger, who has been sentenced to 41 months in prison for corruption, said the messages were gallows humor, not indicative of deeper prejudice. One of the officers who will be fired for sending homophobic texts is gay.

“My best friends and closest friends are all black, gay, Chinese or Asian, and Hispanic,” Mr. Furminger told a Bay Area ABC News affiliate. The texts “were supposed to be funny, not to be broadcast on the news.”

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have said they’ll assist in trying to root out whether the officers’ personal views may have disqualified their testimony over the last decade.

Adachi, the public defender, said more than 100 cases where Furminger testified had already been dropped. And as part of the probe, the public defender said he’ll provide a list of potential police department reforms, including incentives for cops to live in the same neighborhoods they patrol.

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