The strange and troubling story of Joel Babbs: What it tells us about the SFPD

The bizarre and troubling career of a whistle-blowing San Francisco police officer has returned to the spotlight with a new...

The bizarre and troubling career of a whistle-blowing San Francisco police officer has returned to the spotlight with a new set of misconduct allegations lobbed against him. But the officer says it’s a clear-cut case of retaliation after alleging racism in the police force.

And the whole thing is unfolding in public, which is an incredibly rare occurence for a police misconduct case in California.

While the allegations might seem straightforward, the case gets complicated.

Officer Joel Babbs is facing possible termination for allegedly touching a female police employee inappropriately on six occasions, back in May of 2019. But Babbs denies the allegations, claiming the case is part of an retaliation campaign waged against him after he reported his supervisors for discrimination in 2016.

The situation came to light in a rare disciplinary hearing held in public at the Police Commission on Wednesday after Babbs waived his right to confidentiality. While The City used to hold such hearings in public for decades, a California Supreme Court decision ended that practice in 2006.

The hearing also laid bare that, while the San Francisco Police Department has positioned itself as a national leader on reform, some Black officers still believe there is systemic racism in the ranks. Since he joined the force in 1991, Babbs said the only complaint against him has been from “within the walls of the Police Department.”

“I’ve never had a complaint from the public,” Babbs told the Police Commission. “Only with the police department, which fabricated cases against Joel Babbs because I’m a Black man.”

In another unique twist, Babbs is representing himself in his own disciplinary matter. During the hearing, he said his family has gone into hiding and made what Police Commissioner John Hamasaki described as a “pretty dramatic” allegation about a gun being brandished on him in front of Police Chief Bill Scott.

“This is not one of our straightforward cases,” Hamasaki said.

The complicated tale first hit the news back in September 2017, when Babbs was arrested by his own department on charges of falsely using a vehicle registration sticker and filing a false police report.

While the charges were later dismissed after prosecutors reportedly dropped the charges, Babbs sued The City alleging the arrest was retaliation for filing complaints with the Department of Human Resources against several of his supervisors in the Muni division for making racist comments in front of other officers in October 2016.

One of his supervisors, a lieutenant, allegedly boasted about using excessive force against a Black woman, according to the lawsuit.

But court records show Babbs did not follow through with the lawsuit. His attorney filed a motion to remove herself from the case in July 2018, saying communication with Babbs had “broken down completely” several months earlier.

Then, last August, Scott filed sexual battery and other charges against Babbs with the Police Commission seeking to fire him for allegedly touching the buttocks or waist of a civilian police services aide on six occasions over the course of four days.

The department is citing several witnesses including the victim and another police services aide who both the victim and Babbs allegedly told about the unwanted touching back around the time of the incidents, SFPD attorney Steven Betz said at the Police Commission.

Babbs claims the victim made up the touching incidents on behalf of another witness — an unnamed sergeant who Babbs alleges was having an affair with the victim. According to Babbs, the sergeant was one of the officers embroiled in a scandal that shook the SFPD in 2015 when more than a dozen members were caught exchanging racist and homophobic text messages.

Babbs had agreed to speak out on behalf of the sergeant in his disciplinary case, saying that, “I’m his only Black friend and that he couldn’t have made those racist texts,” Babbs told the Police Commission. But the sergeant decided to retaliate against him because Babbs pulled out of the agreement to help him, Babbs said.

Betz confirmed at the Police Commission hearing for Babbs that the department does have a pending disciplinary case against the sergeant in question, related to racial bias. But he disputed that any of the witnesses in the case would have a reason to retaliate against Babbs.

“We are here because an employee reported that she was suffering abuse in the workplace and we believe her,” Betz said.

Babbs being a whistleblower doesn’t make him immune from all misconduct in the workplace, Betz said. “If you complain of some misconduct that may be bona fide, it doesn’t mean that you can go commit sexual batteries in the workplace,” he said.

The Police Commission has not decided whether to sustain the allegations against Babbs.

Regardless of the decision, police watchdog John Crew said the case should not be viewed on its own.

The retired American Civil Liberties Union attorney pointed to the racial disparities for Black people in stop and use-of-force data. A Black officer being reprimanded for wearing earrings shortly after taking a knee with George Floyd protester. An anti-bias instructor finding an “extreme” degree of anti-Black sentiment in the department.

“This case, because it was public, needs to be understood in terms of the larger picture,” Crew said. “And the larger picture is very ugly.”

The commission is expected to continue deliberations July 14.

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