A group of San Francisco police officers facing discipline over a series of racist text messages will have their day in court over whether The City waited too long to discipline them. That case could potentially expose whether police officials knew about the bigoted messages but decided not to act until it was too late.
Rain Daugherty, along with a handful of other officers, is facing discipline before the Police Commission over the text messages. But in the Superior Court case, those officers argue that the department waited too long to charge them since the yearlong statute of limitations ran out two years ago. The commission had planned to rule on whether the Police Department had waited too long to file disciplinary charges, and The City argued that point in court Monday.
But Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith on Monday ruled against The City, saying that the case over the statute of limitations will be heard before his court. Until the matter has been decided, any Police Commission discipline hearings are on hold.
“The City had challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear the statute of limitations issues. The court essentially ruled that, yes, it has jurisdiction. And that it will be staying, that is, placing on hold, the administrative proceedings pending before the Police Commission until the court rules on the statute of limitations,” said Alison Berry Wilkinson, who is representing Daugherty, the only officer in the case whose name has been officially made public.
The text messages first came to light in March through a federal filing in connection with a San Francisco police corruption case involving former Sgt. Ian Furminger, who sent and received bigoted and homophobic text messages in 2011 and 2012. Following that revelation, 14 officers were alleged to have played some part in the texts. Chief Greg Suhr recommended to the Police Commission, which has the power to fire officers, that eight of those officers be dismissed. The department then admitted it knew about the texts in 2012 but did not pursue charges.
The matter that will be ruled on by Goldsmith centers on whether the Police Department’s discipline of those officers fell outside the yearlong statute of limitations.
The City has argued that it can still discipline the officers because, while the criminal division of the Police Department’s internal affairs unit was notified about the texts in 2012, the department and its leadership were walled off from that information pending the outcome of the federal case. The department contends it was therefore justified in waiting until this year to file disciplinary charges.
Police oversight body the Office of Citizen Complaints first notified Suhr about the texts in December. But he did not file charges with the Police Commission until after the texts were made public in March.
Lawyers representing the officers in the case don’t trust the department’s version of events and thus do not believe the Police Commission will properly handle the statute of limitations issue.
The Superior Court, Wilkinson said, “will give us access to a greater picture than the narrow one that the Police Department wants us to see.”
“What we are looking for are documents and other materials that would establish the specific date on which The City obtained the text messages at issue, as well as who knew what when and why did they not start the investigation sooner,” she said.
While the only named plaintiff is Daugherty, seven others joined the case. Their names have not been included in filings and a protective order in the matter precludes the release of materials related to their discipline, despite efforts by city attorney Kenneth Walczk to make those court filings public.
Another court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Sept. 3.