Two contradictory pictures of the San Francisco Police Department were painted Monday before a panel of judges heading an inquiry into bias in law enforcement.
Police Chief Greg Suhr, who came before the Blue Ribbon Panel to set an example for rank-and-file officers who may fear retribution for speaking up, said there is no culture of racism or systemic bias in the SFPD, despite a recent scandal around racist text messages sent by a handful of officers.
Suhr was contradicted by his predecessor as chief, District Attorney George Gascon, who said not only is there bias in the ranks but that it is also an old boys network, which impacts everything from hiring to discipline. What’s more, Gascon said current leadership is not up to the task of cleaning up the department.
Both men have very different relationships with the SFPD. Gascon was brought in by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom as an outsider to reform the insular organization. Suhr, a San Francisco native known as a cop’s cop, was hired by Mayor Ed Lee and is close with the police union.
Much of the pair’s testimony centered on events around the revelation that 14 officers sent a series of racist and bigoted text messages between 2011 and 2012, and were outed in a federal court filing in 2015. While Suhr tried to have eight of those officers fired, a judge recently ruled the department waited too long before disciplining the officers since it knew about the texts as early as 2012.
For his part, Suhr answered questions about everything from nepotism and bias to threats of retaliation for speaking to the panel as well as his department’s handling of the fallout from the text scandal.
Suhr said the texts were an example of a few bad apples — not systemic racism — and that current reforms are addressing such issues. When asked if there were other officers in the ranks who might be biased, Suhr said his department randomly sampled staff in search of patterns but found none.
Still, he said many of the officers caught sending the texts would not be hired if they were recruits today. But he could not say if that was true for others currently in the ranks.
When the panel asked if police reviewed all department-issued phones to see if any officers have used them to send bigoted and or racist texts, Suhr said his department has not since there would have to be a reasonable suspicion to do so.
Suhr was asked by Judge LaDoris Cordell if an apparent lack of cooperation with the panel came from many officers fearing retaliation. In response, he said, “Any officer that wants to come forward and speak should do so.”
Gascon, however, said the effects of the text scandal are still felt in the community.
The text message scandal has had the potential to taint the whole criminal justice system, he said. It not only eroded the public’s trust in the police but also in Gascon’s office, since it revealed many of the department’s failings. From discipline to hiring to training and oversight, he said the department is not living up to what is expected of it by the public.
“I’m not always sure the information coming to us is accurate,” Gascon said, referencing the department’s failure to notify his office of the racist text messages. “It taints the entire criminal justice system.”
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