Racist messages between SF police officers challenge city's image

A string of racist text messages between San Francisco police officers has emerged, challenging the Bay Area's image as a beacon of tolerance and diversity. 

Eric Risberg/AP
In this April 13, 2016 file photo, San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr speaks during a town hall meeting to provide the Mission District neighborhood with an update on the investigation of an officer involved shooting in San Francisco. San Francisco's public defender released text messages Tuesday, April 26, 2016, written by former officer Jason Lai, disparaging blacks, Latinos and others. Lai resigned from the department earlier in April.

Details of a second batch of racist text messages sent by a San Francisco police officer seem at odds with the image of a rainbow-flagged city that prides itself on diversity.

But people who have long complained of mistreatment by police are unsurprised, saying that the dozens of textsreleased by the city's public defender on Tuesday reflect a city where minorities feel increasingly harassed, whether by police or by developers eying traditionally ethnic neighborhoods for gleaming new condos.

"In many respects we have a history and tradition of progressive politics that has ironically worked against reform, because I think it took a long time for people to recognize that even in San Francisco, we can have the same problems as Ferguson," said San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, referring to the Missouri city where a black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014, sparking a national movement for greater policeoversight.

"We think we're above it all," Campos said, "and we're not."

San Francisco is in the midst of a technology-based jobs boom that has added thousands of wealthier newcomers to an already crowded city where the median price of a house is now over $1 million. Growing tension between the people who have well-paying jobs and those who do not — many who are minorities— simmers beneath the city's veneer as a mecca to tech and tourism.

The offensive texts released Tuesday refer to a Latino man as a using a derogatory term and compare black people to "a pack of wild animals on the loose." The texts, which also disparage Indians, the homeless, gay people and President Barack Obama, are the second batch to rock the city since it was disclosed in late 2014 that another group of police officers had exchanged in racist and homophobic text messages in an unrelated corruption case.

A judge ruled last year that those officers could keep their jobs and avoid discipline because San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr had waited too long to address the allegations.

The latest text messages emerged during a rape investigation of Jason Lai, a former officer who resigned from the department earlier this month. He had been accused of rape. Prosecutors declined to file rape charges but released the messages to the public defender, whose office is representing a defendant in a case involving Lai.

The messages were on Lai's personal cell phone. Don Nobles, Lai's attorney, could not be reached immediately for comment.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi released the texts Tuesday saying that messages exchanged among Lai and two other San Francisco police officers in 2014 and 2015 may affect at least 200 criminal cases, including three murder cases.

"It is a window into the biases they harbored. It likely influenced who they stopped, who they searched, who they arrested, and how they testified in criminal trials," Adachi said.

It's not just about text messages. Relations between African American and Latino communities and the police have also deteriorated over the shooting deaths of two civilians.

This month, police officers killed a homeless 45-year-old Latino man they say was advancing on them with a knife. In December, officers killed a 26-year-old African American man, saying that he refused to drop a knife.

"There is a certain mean-spiritedness, an attitude in the department," said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "We are not runaway slaves who should be captured. We're citizens of the United States of America. Some are good, others are bad. Go after the bad ones and stop profiling the good ones."

Activists have called for Suhr to resign or be fired, but the chief says he is working to overhaul the department's "use-of-force" policies. Mayor Ed Lee said he supports the chief's reform efforts.

Suhr said Tuesday that the three officers have quit or retired after they were caught sending the texts to each other. He is seeking to fire a fourth officer. Suhr said he has no plans to resign.

Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Tuesday he's stunned the officers felt they could get away with trading such messages and blames that attitude on a lack of leadership.

"If you have a poorly managed department without standards of accountability, everybody sinks to the bottom," he said.

Several people interviewed Tuesday near San Francisco's City Hall shrugged at the texts. But Geo Vala, a 23-year-old after-school mentor for elementary school students, said the texts were scary and could affect the way the officer acts on the job.

"If you're talking that way," he said, "that really shows your true colors."

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