New allegations of racism among officers in the San Francisco Police Department have emerged from a criminal case into an officer who was recently arrested for his alleged role in a sexual assault case.
The San Francisco Examiner first reported the new allegations Thursday.
“We were in the middle of an investigation and we discovered new racist and homophobic text messages that were being used,” District Attorney George Gascon told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday.
Gascon said there were at least five officers involved in sending the text messages, but did not identify the case from which the alleged texts emerged.
The Police Department, however, confirmed the case involved Officer Jason Lai, who was under investigation for an alleged sexual assault. 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.
Another officer, Curtis Liu, who no longer works for the department, is still under investigation for allegedly interfering with the sexual assault investigation. Both were stationed at the Taraval Station, which covers the Sunset District.
Three other officers are being investigated for their alleged involvement, but apparently did not send any of the questionable messages.
In contradiction to the DA, police say the texts were first discovered by their own internal affairs investigators.
Aside from their bigoted nature, the messages also allegedly mocked the public outcry around an earlier text message scandal.
Last year, another group of San Francisco police officers were shown to have sent racist, bigoted and homophobic text messages to one another from 2011 to 2012. The texts emerged out of a federal police corruption trial and resulted in Chief Greg Suhr recommending that eight officers be fired and the rest be punished.
The new allegations come from a review of roughly 5,000 pages of text messages that are part of a criminal case against Lai. The texts were sent from 2014 to 2015.
“The N word was used many times. They are of the same nature…as what we saw last year,” said Gascon, who was notified of the discovery this week. “These officers are completely unconnected with the 14 we saw last year.”
Gascon said he told Suhr about the new racist texts Wednesday so that the officers involved can be removed from public contact while an investigation is underway.
But a letter sent by Suhr to Gascon Thursday strongly disagreed with that narrative of the case.
“For you to suggest that you discovered the text messages through your own criminal investigation would be disingenuous,” reads the letter, which noted that Gascon’s office has had the texts since last fall. “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.”
Narratives aside, the department has denounced the actions of its officers.
“Chief Suhr wants to reassure the public that upon discovery of these text messages, the department took immediate action in removing the officers from public contact, bringing charges before the Police Commission and notifying the District Attorney’s Office so that they could take appropriate steps in reviewing criminal case files,” the Police Department said in a statement.
The police union, which has said racism is not endemic to the department, reiterated that sentiment Thursday.
“The San Francisco Police Officers’ Association condemns the appalling racist behavior committed by a handful of officers. They have disgraced the uniform and their profession,” said POA President Martin Halloran in a statement. “The reprehensible actions by a few officers do not reflect the overall commitment and dedication of the men and women of this department who serve and protect this city and its residents.”
The District Attorney’s Office is planning to notify defense council in cases involving the five officers.
“We still don’t know the full scope of the messages,” Gascon said.
While Gascon would not reveal many details in the ongoing investigation, he did say the phones were private. Whether they were used on duty is unclear.
The allegations call into question claims made by some that the department has no issues with race, and come amid numerous police reform efforts, some of which were spurred directly as a result of previous revelations of bigotry in the ranks.
“No one can say with a straight face now with these new text messages that they are isolated,” said Gascon.
Gascon and a Blue Ribbon Panel he formed last year to look into claims of police bias have been under attack from the Police Officers Association, which has said there are no issues of widespread racial bias in the department.
Most recently, POA leaders gave statements to their lawyers that they heard Gascon allegedly make racist remarks while he was police chief, the job he held prior to becoming district attorney.
Gascon called that claim “a lie.”
Gascon has also come under attack in an anonymous Facebook page called “George Gascon is a Racist.” The page includes articles about Gascon, which are headlined with misleading slants on each story. While the first post on the page is from Monday and there was no one following it prior, it had more than 70,000 “likes” as of Thursday. No response came from a message the Examiner sent to the site.
But Gascon is fairly certain his foes in law enforcement are behind the page.
“They go and they create a phony Facebook page,” he said, adding it is full of phony “likes.”
Yulanda Williams of Officers for Justice, a black officers association, was shocked by the revelation that emerged Thursday. Williams was mentioned by name in last year’s racist texts scandal.
“I am extremely disappointed to hear of this type of conduct continuing on,” she said. “I am hoping the chief will stand by what he said in the past, which is that discipline will be severe and swift.”