Officials, Civil Rights Groups and Police Union Condemn Biased Text Messages Allegedly Sent by Four SFPD Officers

Public officials, civil rights groups and a police officers’ union today condemned racist and homophobic text messages allegedly sent by four San Francisco officers, while lawyers for the officers said their clients deeply regret the messages.

Mayor Ed Lee said, “It is both shocking and disturbing to hear that four San Francisco police officers are under investigation for such heinous and despicable statements.

“If these statements are attributable to any San Francisco police officer, I join Police Chief Greg Suhr in seeking nothing less than termination,” Lee said in a statement.

District Attorney George Gascon said he was “deeply disturbed by these text messages” and said that “in order to ensure our criminal justice system is fair and equitable,” his office will assess every prosecution in the past 10 years in which the officers participated.

“This is a shameful incident that the public deserves to have addressed in a meaningful and expeditious manner,” Gascon said.

Police Department spokesman Albie Esparza confirmed that four officers were reassigned last month to jobs in which they have no contact with the public during a department probe of the messages, which were sent to and from disgraced former Sgt. Ian Furminger’s personal cellphone in 2011 and 2012.

Esparza said Suhr expects the investigation to be completed within 30 days and that any results showing that an officer was biased “will be forwarded to the Police Commission with a recommendation from the chief for termination.”

“There is no place in the department for bias,” Esparza said.

The messages were discovered by the FBI in an investigation of thefts by Furminger and two other officers of money and property seized from suspects in 2009.

Furminger was convicted in federal court in San Francisco in December of four felonies related to the scheme and was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer last month to three years and five months in prison. Furminger resigned from the force after being convicted.

Some of the messages were made public Friday by federal prosecutors in a court filing opposing Furminger’s request to Breyer for release on bail while he appeals his conviction. The texts were previously given privately to the Police Department by the FBI.

This afternoon, Breyer turned down Furminger’s request for bail during appeal. Without directly mentioning the text messages, Breyer cited Furminger’s “anti-social behavior” as one of several reasons why Furminger had not proved he was not a flight risk or a danger to the community. Furminger is due to begin serving his sentence on April 3.

Although the four officers being investigated were not named by the Police Department, their identities were confirmed by their lawyers.

Attorney Anthony Brass said that his clients, officers Michael Robison and Michael Celis, are “very remorseful and very concerned.”

“Certainly they know these comments were hurtful to the community they serve. No one is defending the bigotry and racism in the texts,” Brass said.

While saying “that sort of language is incompatible with serving the citizens of San Francisco,” Brass noted that the text messages were “very private communications” on Furminger’s and the officers’ personal cellphones.

“We live in a world where there is no privacy,” he said.

Alison Berry Wilkinson, a lawyer for Officer Rain Daugherty, said, “He is appropriately ashamed of his impulsive and insensitive banter and accepts full responsibility.”

Daugherty is currently on personal leave from the department for unrelated reasons, Wilkinson said.

The fourth officer is Noel Schwab, according to his attorney, Julia Fox.

“Officer Schwab never intended to malign anyone, either generally or specifically,” she said.

“While the messages were in incredibly bad taste and wholly unacceptable, they were not indicative of animus against any group or class. They were intended for a specific recipient,” Fox said.

In Friday’s filing in the Furminger case, prosecutors alleged the messages show the former sergeant was “a virulent racist and homophobe” and argued the judge should take that into account in deciding whether to grant him release during the appeal.

Furminger’s lawyer, Mark Goldrosen, wrote in a response filed on Sunday that Furminger is not racist and anti-gay. He said the prosecution filing “does not include the full context in which many of the text messages were written” and does not indicate whether there was any investigation into whether the messages were intended merely as humorous banter.

“His close friends include many persons of different races and different sexual orientations,” Goldrosen wrote.

In denying the bail request, Breyer said in a written order that in addition to Furminger’s anti-social behavior, other factors were his “very serious and ongoing alcohol addiction,” failure to accept responsibility for his crimes and tumultuous family ties.

The prosecution brief indicates which messages were sent by Furminger and which were sent to him by officers and other people between October 2011 and June 2012, but does not name the correspondents. It says the examples are “some of the messages” sent during that period.

In one exchange on May 19, 2012, according to the filing, Furminger wrote to an officer that his wife was being visited by a friend whose husband is black and asked, “Should I be worried?”

The unnamed officer responded, “Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. It’s not against the law to put an animal down.”

Furminger answered, “Well said!”

The officer then wrote, “U may have to kill the half breed kids too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyhow.”

In other messages, both Furminger and an officer used the term “white power.”

On April 16, 2012, an officer wrote to Furminger that he had just boarded a BART train at 16th and Mission streets.

Furminger texted back, “OK, watch out for BM’s,” in an apparent reference to black males.

The officer responded, “Too late, I’m surrounded. And the only gun I have is broken!” Furminger then wrote, “Your fucked” and the officer answered, “Dumb nig nugs,” according to the filing.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association issued a statement today by President Martin Halloran and other association executives condemning the messages.

“While we believe wholeheartedly in due process and affording our members all protection under the law, and we understand we are all prone to indiscretions in text messages, all these racist and homophobic text messages, if true, are disgraceful and humiliating to the community we serve.

“We fully understand the Chief’s decision to reassign these officers and ensure that there is no interaction with the public during this full-scale investigation,” the association said.

The Officers for Justice Peace Officers Association said the civil rights group “is outraged and disappointed that there are sworn members of the San Francisco Police Department engaging in these types of despicable racist activities and conversations.”

The Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco NAACP, said at a news conference on the steps of the Hall of Justice that he is “aghast, appalled and very disappointed.”

The group’s vice president, the Rev. Arnold Townsend, said he believes the messages show that “the attitudes that prevail in Ferguson are not isolated.”

Board of Supervisors President London Breed and Supervisor Malia Cohen said in a joint statement, “We are disappointed and appalled at the content of the recently revealed racist and homophobic text messages exchanged by four San Francisco police officers.”

The two supervisors called for more diversity on the police force and better training of officers.

“We must hold SFPD accountable for the training it provides its officers, which should include specific training on diversity, culturally competent community relations, and transparency,” they said.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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