A new group of San Francisco police officers have been accused of exchanging bigoted text messages that emerged during an investigation into allegations of sexual assault by an off-duty officer last year, police and prosecutors said Thursday.
The racist and homophobic messages come as the Police Department has had to battle allegations of systemic racism within its ranks, including a separate scandal last year in which more than a dozen other officers were accused of sending racist text messages.
The new accusations are related to the criminal investigation of alleged sexual assault by Officer Jason Lai while off-duty in August 2015, police said.
District Attorney George Gascon said investigators were sifting through evidence sent by the Police Department late last year related to Lai’s case, including 25,000 pages of text messages, and discovered the bigoted messages by at least four officers.
Gascon called the messages “very problematic” and said they included texts from the time when the previous text message scandal was revealed in March 2015.
In that earlier case, a judge in December ruled against the Police Department being able to fire officers who exchanged the racist text messages, saying the department failed to act within a one-year statute of limitations after being notified by federal prosecutors of the texts.
Gascon said along with bigoted messages, the text messages uncovered recently “clearly acknowledged” the earlier scandal and the officers were “almost mocking what was going on.”
Gascon said once he learned of the new messages, he immediately sent a letter to police Chief Greg Suhr to make sure the officers weren’t on active duty with the public.
The district attorney and police chief have provided different narratives concerning the new text messages.
Gascon said Thursday his office was not notified of the bigoted text messages by police and only learned of it late last week after sifting through the thousands of pages of messages themselves:
“It was never pointed out to us. … If the department knew about it, it’s a problem that we weren’t told.”
In a letter responding to Gascon that was also provided to the media, Suhr wrote today that the district attorney’s office was sent evidence including the text messages on Sept. 21, and that police notified his office on multiple occasions in September, October, November and January of the existence of the texts.
“For you to suggest that you discovered the text messages through your own criminal investigation would be disingenuous. … This is not new information as our offices have been working closely on this case with at least three members of your staff to ensure the fair administration of justice.”
Police said that during the criminal investigation into Lai’s case, the department’s internal affairs investigators learned on Aug. 8 that officers had sent racist and homophobic text messages.
The department acted immediately to suspend the officers and referred the matter to the city’s Police Commission for review, police said.
Since then, two of the officers have separated from the department. A third officer has an open case pending with the Police Commission and could face discipline or termination, police said.
Lai was charged last week with misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of criminal offender history information and misuse of confidential Department of Motor Vehicle information, but prosecutors found insufficient evidence to charge him with sexual assault. He has been on unpaid leave since the investigation began, police said.
Gascon said prosecutors are in the process of notifying defense attorneys handling cases where the accused officers are involved. He said he did not know how many cases might be affected.
Gascon said prosecutors did not see the contents of the texts until recently because reviewing the evidence is time-consuming while they are also handling other cases. He added that about 20,000 pages with printed-out copies of text messages still have to be reviewed.
Gascon said the latest revelations are particularly concerning because these officers are unrelated to the previous ones and because the San Francisco Police Officers Association has been:
“… consistently combative when you criticize anything going on in the department.”
The police union has frequently publicly criticized Gascon, and a blue ribbon panel he created last year to investigate police bias and misconduct.
Among the union’s allegations is that Gascon made disparaging remarks about minorities during a dinner in 2010 when he was police chief, an allegation that Gascon has denied.
Police union president Martin Halloran issued a statement about the new text message scandal, saying the union:
“… condemns the appalling racist behavior committed by a handful of officers. They have disgraced the uniform and their profession. … This conduct will not be tolerated in the SFPD nor in the POA.”
Public Defender Jeff Adachi also released a statement about the texts:
“My office will begin a full review of past cases that may have been tainted by these officers. … I am also calling for an independent investigation into when the police chief and district attorney learned of the text messages. … Every person in San Francisco deserves equal justice. It does them a grave disservice to dismiss every hateful act as an isolated incident. The Police Department must address the culture that lets racism fester in its ranks.”