Change you can't believe in: How a police texting scandal echoes San Francisco's racist past

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San Francisco and its environs enjoy a longstanding reputation as a progressive haven within the US, a place associated with gay pride, school desegregation, freedom of speech, hippies, and, now, hipsters attempting to advance human potential and quality of life through technology. But as recent events in the city attest, there’s another San Francisco, one where only 6% of city residents (but 56% of the city's jail population) are black; a San Francisco built on a legacy of decades of imported racism.


On March 13th, four officers and one former sergeant for the SFPD were publicly accused of sending racist and homophobic text messages to one another about members of the community they are sworn to protect and serve. Though the texts, which referenced “burning crosses” and referred to people of color as “the savages” and “not human,” were recovered from phone records from conversations made in 2011 and 2012, they were made public after being entered into evidence as part of a current court proceeding against Ian Furminger. In 2014, Furminger, a former SFPD sergeant, was indicted by a grand jury in for theft of money and property seized from suspects. (A three-year investigation by the FBI began in March 2011, when the SF public defender released surveillance videos appearing to show officers, including Furminger, abusing and stealing from residential hotel residents; it ended in February 2014 with six officers facing federal corruption charges.)

Though Furminger resigned from the force after being convicted of theft and corruption this past December, the texts came to light just a few weeks ago, when they were entered as evidence against Furminger’s request to be released on bail pending his appeal. (Bail was denied.)

The level of racist vitriol in the texts between SFPD officers Michael Robison, Michael Celis, Rain Daughterty and Noel Schwab is so extreme — a few messages read “n—— should be spayed” and “all n—— must hang” — that the city’s public defender’s office has begun to examine previous cases involving the officers for potential bias; there may be as many as 1,000 cases up for review. (Speaking of an African-American man coming to his house for dinner, one officer advised another in the texts: “Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down.”)

Robison, Celis, Daughterty and Schwab were forced to discontinue departmental duties that put them in contact with the public last month, according to The San Francisco Appeal, an online news outlet that covers the City and County of San Francisco. But SF Supervisor Malia Cohen is concerned that there may be more officers involved, perhaps as many as 10, including a captain. Though SFPD Chief Greg Suhr was out of town when the texts became public, he was quoted by ABC-7 News in an audiotaped interview, saying, “If these officers are found to have made these statements…I will do everything I can to remove them from the police department, as we do not want them amongst us.”

The police union and the mayor, Ed Lee, have supported Suhr’s position. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, speaking in a press conference last Tuesday, went so far as to call for a federal investigation similar to the one the U.S. Department of Justice undertook in Ferguson, Missouri. “These texts display deep-rooted racism within members of the San Francisco Police Department,” Adachi said, adding: “Some of these texts are even more outrageous and hurtful than some of the emails from the Ferguson Police Department report.” (The NAACP’s Dr. Amos Brown condemned the emails in a gathering of faith leaders on Monday March 16. “It is a state of denial for anybody in leadership in this city to suggest that Ferguson is not everywhere,” Brown said. “Even in San Francisco.”)

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If you are familiar with California history, the text messaging scandal going on in San Francisco might not feel particularly strange. Right across the bay from the SFPD headquarters is the city of Richmond, which, in the 1920s, had its relationship to racism immortalized with a photograph of the Ku Klux Klan marching down Macdonald Avenue in white robes and hoods. The estimated 750 Klansmen, photographed marching in a 1924 Fourth of July parade with their faces uncovered, hailed from various parts of the Bay Area. They had originally wanted to march in the Oakland parade, but their permit was denied. And though the City of Richmond neither granted nor denied their permit, the Klansmen received no interference from city officials when large contingents assembled, both on foot and in vehicles.


Though many African-Americans migrated to Richmond and to other parts of the Bay Area to work in the shipyards as part of the war effort, the Klan rally was a direct outgrowth area of the fact that the Bay Area served as a destination for Southern whites seeking employment as well. According to my mother, Anna de Leon, a former civil rights attorney, a number of Bay Area police departments made recruitment efforts in the deep South in order to find officers to join their growing ranks.

The chickens came home to roost, so to speak, in the early 1980s, when two young African-American men—Johnny Roman and Michael Guillory—were shot to death in their beds by Richmond police. In 1982, Richmond officers Clinton Mitchell and Samuel Dudkiewicz fired four bullets into Mr. Roman when the police came to arrest Roman on charges of harassment. (The police said that Roman had reached for a shotgun, but the coroner’s testimony contradicted their version. The autopsy showed that Roman was shot when he was “in a fetal position with his legs drawn up.”) That same year, Dudkeiwicz shot Mr. Guillory through a window to his bedroom after police were called to Guillory's home. Though Dudkeiwicz claimed Guillory had “a shiny object,” no weapon of any sort was ever found.  Roman and Guillory were but two of the six black men shot to death by Richmond police between 1980 and 1983.


In 1983, the families for both deceased men brought a civil suit against both officers — Roman vs. City of Richmond and Guillory vs. City of Richmond were eventually consolidated into a single trial that lasted four months — as well as Deputy Chief of Police Ernest Clements, and Chief of Police Leo Garfield. The suit also named the City of Richmond as a defendant, charging that it had failed to deal with a notorious group of violence-prone officers.

The attorneys for the families of the slain men sought to prove that theirs were wrongful deaths at the hands of police who violated the both victims’ civil rights. To that end, they introduced over 25 witnesses who testified to a systematic pattern of racist violence on the part of the Richmond PD. (While this number may seem modest, it does not include the many citizens who were witnesses or victims of brutality but were afraid to come forward. Nor does this include all of those were willing to testify.)


Eventually, the defendants were found guilty in civil — but not criminal —court. Garfield resigned from his post after the scandal - only to be replaced by Clements. According to the New York Times, shortly after the verdict, “a Federal jury said it was sending a message to that city to change its ways” and the Richmond PD was forced to pay out $3 million to the victims’ families for the two wrongful deaths, a judgment that at that point, was the largest judgment for racially motivated wrongful death in US history.

Officers Dudkiewicz and Mitchell were not outliers: As reported in a 2012 Wall Street Journal article about the Richmond PD’s issues with racism, from the 1970s to 1980s, the police department played host to a group of rogue white officers who called themselves ‘The Cowboys’ because of the western-style boots they wore. According to an attorney who worked in the area at the time, the Cowboys were known to have posted a 1980s-style selfie on the wall of the police department posing in full uniform and on horseback brandishing a Confederate flag. (This photograph was introduced into evidence in the civil cases brought by the families of the two men killed by police.)


Richmond law enforcement agencies continue to struggle with racial parity on their forces. Many officers with Confederate roots have remained in the Bay Area since the 1970s and 80s, partially due to California laws enacted in the mid-1970s. The laws were designed to protect honest police officers from over-zealous internal investigations, but have become a safety net for bad cops. Attempts to challenge those laws have met with opposition from California's well-organized police unions. "California is the most restrictive state in the nation, when it comes to police secrecy," Jim Chanin, one of the lead attorneys from the Richmond “Cowboys” case, told the OC Register in 2010. "It's California's dirty little secret."

In 2006, the department hired Chief of Police Chris Mangus from outside its ranks – Mangus, a white man, moved to the Bay from Fargo, North Dakota. Though Mangus was supposed to usher in a new era of policing and outreach without the baggage of the past, results have been mixed: In 2007, several senior African-American officers sued the city for racial harassment, citing bias in promotions and racially insensitive jokes. (A jury eventually sided with the city, and the fallout from lawsuit continues to exacerbate tensions on the police force and within the community.)


• • • •

The racial politics of a metropolitan police force like that in Richmond or San Francisco has a lot to do both with that force’s recruiting tactics and the sort of training it offers. According to a 2012 article about race and policing in The Bay Citizen, a non-profit news organization based in Berkeley, “Upon entering the police academy, San Francisco officers currently receive about 42 hours of ‘impartial policing’ and ‘cultural competency’” trainings to try to eliminate bias and increase understanding among white officers of cultural values and communication styles in communities of color. Unfortunately, the men now accused of sending the racist texts would not have had the benefit of this education; as veteran officers, they would have gone through the academy prior to the implementation of such trainings.


This past Tuesday, March 17, the public defender’s Racial Justice Committee, co-chaired by deputy public defenders Christopher Hite and Rebecca Young, released a 10-point plan, calling for police reform and transparency in San Francisco. Young said the “profound racial hatred” of the texting scandal highlights a need for police to address officers' explicit and implicit biases before they impact the community and the plan she and Hite created calls for several additional remedies: Training on implicit bias so that officers can understand how their personal biases can interfere with their jobs; annual reviews to determine whether field training officers are passing along biases to other officers; and reviews to determine whether complaints regarding biases exhibited by field training officers have been made and if they were adequately addressed. The plan also calls for the SFPD to make every effort to assign positions in communities of color to officers who actually live in those neighborhoods. (Echoing this sentiment, San Francisco Supervisor London Breed last week called for an increase in recruitment efforts to bring San Francisco youth into the police department so they can serve the communities in which they grew up.)

But, if implemented, could these plans be effective? According to some, the remedies don’t go far enough. “Those texts have revealed what we’re really up against here,” my mother, Anna de Leon, told me. “We’re not talking about a little implicit bias; we’re talking about attitudes of white supremacy coming out the Deep South from fifty years ago. We’re talking about a level of hatred, contempt, and entitlement to inflict violence that will not be rooted out by nudging officers to examine their cultural assumptions.” When asked about remedies, she said: “The only effective response is to strip these individuals of their institutional power when they exhibit racist behavior in their actions. And to create a culture that never minimizes or excuses instances of racism. This means that police departments need to take every manifestation of racism—however small or seemingly insignificant—as indicative of a very large problem in that individual officer, and have disciplinary policies that put everyone on notice that racism will not be tolerated.”


San Francisco might be able to take a lesson from other police departments. Last week, a similar racist texting scandal erupted in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Although the Sunshine State doesn't have the same progressive reputation as San Francisco, the police department there took decisive action. On Friday, four Ft. Lauderdale police officers lost their jobs after a five-month investigation confirmed that racist, sexist and homophobic language, images, and video were exchanged on the officers’ personal cell phones. According to Ft. Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley, who is African-American, the officers' “ conduct was inexcusable and there is zero tolerance for this kind of behavior in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.”

Aya de Leon is a writer who has also been known to do a bit of hip hop. Her work has appeared in Essence, xojane, Ebony, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Racialicious, Bitch Magazine, and on Def Poetry. Kensington Books will be publishing her sexy feminist heist novel in 2016.