Revelations that several San Francisco police officers exchanged racist, sexist and homophobic text messages threaten to imperil thousands of convictions and criminal cases potentially tainted by bias.
In a news conference Thursday, Dist. Atty. George Gascon said prosecutors have expanded a probe already underway into criminal cases that may have been compromised by the officers involved in the texts.
Gascon’s probe has so far identified 3,000 criminal cases that could have been affected by perceived bias by 14 officers. Investigators in a task force he created are combing through each case to determine whether some convictions must be overturned or pending cases dismissed.
“If just one individual was wrongly imprisoned because of bias on the part of these officers — that’s one too many,” Gascon said.
The probe began after the U.S. attorney’s office filed a motion in March opposing bail for Ian Furminger, a former San Francisco police officer sentenced to 41 months in prison on various corruption-related charges. The motion, intended to prevent Furminger from obtaining bail while appealing his conviction, listed the texts.
The messages included slurs and disparaging references to African Americans and gays.
Police Chief Greg Suhr has so far recommended that six of the 14 officers who sent such texts be fired and has turned over the results of his investigation to the San Francisco Police Commission.
“We have been cooperating with the district attorney the whole time,” said Officer Grace Gatpamdan, an SFPD spokeswoman. She said some of the officers had “single incidents.”
The furor over the texts followed a series of law enforcement scandals in San Francisco in recent months. Sheriff's deputies have been accused of staging gladiator-like fights among inmates in the jail, and Suhr was suspended for five days for failing to follow department policy in helping a female friend who was a victim of domestic violence.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said he hopes the investigators will interview victims of discriminatory police actions instead of just reviewing documents.
“This is a systemic problem we have in San Francisco,” Adachi said.
He said African Americans are arrested and prosecuted at much higher rates than whites, adding, “This is not an isolated case of 14 officers.”
The Rev. Amos Brown, a San Francisco NAACP board member, said African Americans comprise only about 5% of the city’s population but make up 60% to 70% of those in San Francisco’s juvenile hall.
“This is a moral issue,” Brown said at a news conference with Gascon. “Everybody is guilty, whether Republican or Democrat, whether judge, probation officer or police officer.”
Gascon, a former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief, served as San Francisco police chief for about a year before his election as district attorney. Suhr succeeded him.
The cases being reviewed go back 10 years, and Gascon acknowledged that some of the alleged officer misconduct took place on his watch.
“I feel terrible,” he said.
The task force’s findings will be made public. Gascon said he hopes the panel will complete the work by the end of the year, but no deadline has been set.
As part of the current probe, Gascon said some pending criminal cases already have been dismissed, and prosecutors so far have alerted defense attorneys of potential problems in about 60 other cases. The office is giving priority to cases that involve people who are behind bars. About 1,400 cases involved arrests but no prosecution.
Gascon also widened the task force’s mission to include an examination of whether a culture of bias exists in the police force, which serves one of the nation’s most liberal cities. He said Thursday he was adding three retired judges, including former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, to work with the group.
Gascon noted that police misconduct has stirred distrust in cities across the country.
“As recent revelations have shown, we are not immune,” Gascon said. “The actions of a few have undermined the public faith in the system.”