An SFPD car sits on the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Larkin Street in San Francisco, Calif. Friday, April 1, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Law enforcement leaders clash over who discovered latest racist texts

Disagreements over who discovered the latest rash of racist texts sent by police started almost as soon as the news broke this week.

District Attorney George Gascon announced Thursday that his office recently found text messages involving five officers while working on a criminal investigation into Officer Jason Lai, as first reported by the San Francisco Examiner.

Later that day, Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has been criticized for his handling of a separate bigoted text scandal in 2015, said it was his department that discovered the messages and acted appropriately by initiating disciplinary proceedings.

Now the Examiner has obtained a document that was sent to one of the officers involved in the scandal, showing the department took the appropriate actions to discipline the officer.

That document corroborates Suhr’s statement Thursday that the department was aware of the messages and disciplined the officers. However, it remains unclear whether the department notified the DA about the incident, as is customary with cases involving misconduct.

Lt. Curtis Liu, who has since resigned along with another officer, was notified Oct. 15 of his suspension and pending investigation and possible charges. “The Department is investigating serious allegations of misconduct by you that include making statements that show extreme bias incompatible with the duties of a police officer,” reads the letter.

The letter went on to say Liu’s first hearing in the matter before the Police Commission was Nov. 9.

“It was [Internal Affairs] who found the text messages,” said Liu’s lawyer Tony Brass. “The DA did not discover this. It was given to them.”

Whether the DA was aware of the texts is another matter. To the DA, such disclosure matters because it could impact cases involved the officers, including possibly impeaching them as witnesses in past cases.

According to the DA’s office, the Police Department did not notify their office that evidence in the case against Lai, which stemmed from allegations of sexual assault, contained racist and homophobic text messages.

There was not enough evidence to charge Lai in connection with that incident, but he was charged last week with two misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of local criminal offender records and four misdemeanor counts of misuse of confidential DMV records.

The only overt notification that there were text messages involved in the case came to the DA’s office in September, but it was not stated that the messages might include offensive or biased language.

“It is entirely inaccurate to indicate there was a collaborative effort in the investigation of any racist and homophobic text messages,” Gascon wrote in a letter to Suhr on Thursday.

While the department notified the DA’s office of possible impeachable information in the disciplinary case, they did not specify where that came from, Gascon wrote.

San Francisco Police Officer Jason Lai (Courtesy SFPD)
San Francisco Police Officer Jason Lai (Courtesy SFPD)

The revelations Thursday has implications mainly because many of the 14 officers caught sending bigoted and racist text messages last year avoided discipline because the department let the statute of limitation — one year — run out before filming disciplinary charges against them.

That text scandal emerged in March 2015 from filings in a federal corruption case against San Francisco police officers. The filings showed the officers had sent their messages in 2011 and 2012, but because of the ongoing federal investigation, the department held off on any disciplinary proceedings.

Suhr has said that he was walled off from knowing about the case and that the department thought it would be able to file charges after the federal case was complete. But a Superior Court judge, in a civil case brought by some of the officers involved, ruled late last year that the department failed to act in time to discipline the officers.

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