My View II: Why the SFPD Scandal Matters

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When we published a San Francisco Public Defender press release earlier this week outlining a probe into SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger, who was found guilty in February of four felonies that uncovered a litany of racist and homophobic texts sent between him and four other officers, the reaction was fairly typical – a downplaying of the incident.

As one poster wrote, “The problem here is that the Vanguard is gleaning every racist incident it can find to prove a thesis that racism is rampant in all police departments, even if only ‘subtle’, i.e. racism exists in every encounter between a white police officer and a person of ethnicity.”

The problem, of course, in this case was that, when the texts were released, the conduct was so egregious that it quickly became obvious that it was indefensible. And, while in general, I am a strong supporter of free speech – even moving beyond the traditional definition of government regulating speech – in this case, there is no way that these officers can continue to serve based both on the public relations aspect of it as well as the officers’ own safety in carrying out the course of their duties.

As the SF Chronicle wrote, “Ironically, one of the four — Michael Robison, 46, who joined the Police Department in 1992 — is himself openly gay… In their court filing Friday, Furminger’s prosecutors said he had sent repeated texts calling another officer a ‘fag.’”

“No one is championing the bigotry and racism in those words,” said Mr. Robison’s attorney, Tony Brass. “But these cops are in a very politically correct department, and when they blow off steam they do it by being the very opposite of politically correct.’’

However, as the Chronicle notes, “Some of the messages, however, go beyond the bounds of humor.”

And that’s actually an understatement. As Rev. Arnold Townsend of the Church Without Walls said at a press conference the NAACP called on Monday, “No doubt there was some joking… The fact that they think that was funny is awfully scary if you are a black person on the streets of San Francisco.”

There are some critical issues that were raised that need to be addressed. A point that has often been raised – and was in response to the University of Oklahoma incident – is why has it been generally okay for African-Americans to use the N-word, particularly in rap songs, but if a white uses the term…

There is a clear difference both in meaning and intent. There are some sociological schools of thought that look at empowerment-disempowerment dynamics, where minorities have incorporated words that were once epithets as a means to take the word back or create empowerment.

It is worth noting that, while the rap culture has made frequent use of the N-word as a means of self-identification, white rappers, notably Eminem, have generally avoided using the word.

However, rap culture is one thing. Police officers are another. And one of the problems that we see is that African-American police officers often act with little distinction from their white counterparts. There is a culture and an unconscious bias that, it seems, plays a larger role in conduct than necessarily the race of the officer.

Along those lines, I would probably argue that a gay officer calling officers “fags” and a black officer using the “N-word” either to describe colleagues or especially citizens is equally inappropriate.

Still, I think if it were just a bunch of off-color jokes, you might argue that the humor, while inappropriate ‒ especially coming from police officers, is something we could live with, with some sensitivity training. But what Furminger wrote was so beyond the pale, that there can be no real defense. (I’m not going to reprint them here, but go to page 3 of the complaint if you want to read the actual texts).

The question comes down to this: what does this all mean? I return to the comment I posted at the start: “The problem here is that the Vanguard is gleaning every racist incident it can find to prove a thesis that racism is rampant in all police departments, even if only ‘subtle’, i.e. racism exists in every encounter between a white police officer and a person of ethnicity.”

First, the texts from Sgt. Furminger are shocking in part because they are so overtly racist. They are so over-the-top. They are so clearly black and white. We really don’t see a lot of that language because it is so unacceptable these days.

Most racism is far more subtle and, therefore, in my view more insidious.

That poster continues, “Yet AG Eric Holder could find no such thing in the encounter between Wilson and Brown, no matter how hard he tried.  Instead he conceded Ferguson is more about revenue enhancement than anything, but saved his proverbial ‘butt’ by insisting racism was a result of ‘disparate impact’, which was laughable.”

This is a very unfortunate take-away from the DOJ’s report. The DOJ’s report highlights what is a very serious problem. If the Ferguson program was about revenue enhancement, the problems that it caused were in fact racial, because their policies had a “disparate impact” on African-Americans.

We are again not talking about a subtle effect – we are talking about a huge effect. Blacks make up 65% of the population in Ferguson, but receive 95% of walking citations. The thing about walking citations is that they are completely discretionary. It is not like stopping a guy who just ran a red or robbed a bank.

As one poster put it, “Do blacks in Ferguson walk differently? Do they violate the ‘walking’ ordinance at a much higher rate than non-whites?”

To downplay that is ludicrous. It simply reinforces the perception in the black community that the police are out to get them and that they are racist.

That is the bottom-line real problem here – all of these incidents add up to create a very strong perception about biased policing.

Back in December I wrote that the prevailing belief in the black community, especially for those under the age of 40, is that they do not trust the system to oversee the actions of the police and hold them accountable. While there is no agreement about whether Officer Wilson was justified in his shooting, the absolute lack of faith in the system renders that a moot point.

Indeed, this month, the reports from the US Justice Department validate both views. The first report provides the latest exoneration for Officer Darren Wilson, going so far as to question whether “the hands up, don’t shoot” symbol of the movement has validity. But that finding is undermined by the second report, which hammers the Ferguson Police Department and validates the lack of trust in the black community.

Worse yet, while the shooting of Michael Brown happened in Ferguson, the focus on Ferguson is almost an historical accident – it is neither the only city in St. Louis County nor the worst to suffer these problems.

The report is nothing short of devastating, concluding, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”

“This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community,” it continues.

What police and public officials need to recognize is that, as long as there remains the issue of trust, they will never get the benefit of the doubt.

We may be a nation built on laws, but for too many people in this nation we are a nation built on the rule of two different laws – one that governs privilege and one that governs people of color, and in Ferguson we saw what happens when those two sets of law meet. Without trust, there can be no acceptance of the rule of law.

The San Francisco incident matters because it continues that narrative.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

    Blacks make up 65% of the population but 95% of walking citation. 

    I recently heard that jaywalking citations were often a result of officers doing favors for people caught in much more expensive  traffic violations and also used as a plea down in court where the offender can’t afford the ticket actually issued.

    1. David Greenwald

      I was unable to even find reference to that. I’m skeptical.

      Ferguson has 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. Fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

      “The Municipal Court is the judicial branch of the city government and has jurisdiction over all cases involving violations of the provisions of the Ferguson charter, code, and other ordinances of the city.”

      So they wouldn’t even get more serious crimes that could have been plead down in the court.

  2. hpierce

    OK…. read the first 3 pages of the complaint.  And you’re worried about the (probably slurred) language used and not once mention that we’re talking about an officer who has a serious problem with alcohol, works “buzzed”, carries a gun and probably drives a City vehicle?  Priorities?  If his language was PC instead of uncultured and offensive, you’d be OK with the situation?

  3. Miwok

    Along those lines, I would probably argue that a gay officer calling officers “fags” and a black officer using the “N-word” either to describe colleagues or especially citizens is equally inappropriate.

    I would expand this to include the rest of the population. When I used to work with a group that seemed to think they could call each other names I called them out on it, as it was offensive to be in public and hear co-workers sound like that.

    That poster continues, “Yet AG Eric Holder could find no such thing in the encounter between Wilson and Brown, no matter how hard he tried.  Instead he conceded Ferguson is more about revenue enhancement than anything, but saved his proverbial ‘butt’ by insisting racism was a result of ‘disparate impact’, which was laughable.”

    AG Holder and several other commenters want to make this a racial argument so they will include it even if it is false. They do not do the Cause any justice when every other word out of the Justice Department is Race. The emphasis on Race by the Justice department emphasizes to me they think of little else.

    What police and public officials need to recognize is that, as long as there remains the issue of trust, they will never get the benefit of the doubt.

    While we see officers every day, do we know them as people, as family? Not really, so we expect professional behavior at least, courtesy and understanding at best. But the spiritual toll of the job, when they have to deal with other peoples’ problems day after day, is difficult to release. Hearing about these texts from the SFPD officers will no doubt lead to some of them being released. Do they change because of this?

  4. hpierce

    I find it amusing (and, perhaps instructive) that if I use the word “nigger” (Brazil nuts were called “nigger-toes” 50 years ago), I’m going to be censored for spelling out the “n-word”, even if in ‘quotes’, but you can write “fags” or “faggots”, without having to write ‘the “f-word”.’  This police officer should be shown the “door” (the d-word?) not for his probably drunken speech, but for his habitual drunkenness, on the job.  “Hey, Hey what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going on”.  For what it’s worth.  Oh, wait, bad choice, think that was Buffalo Springfield.

    Bad, coarse, offensive, vile language should be censured.  But, should we completely remove all words from dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. because they are offensive?  How can we teach that they are offensive if we don’t identify them?

    The officer in question is unfit to serve.  Period.  But not necessarily for the language cited in  page 3 of the complaint that David was afraid to quote.  Hell, he (the officer) was probably drunk when he said those things.

      1. hpierce

        Amusing, should have read “amusing” as in ‘ironic’.  Didn’t catch that on my self-edit.  There isn’t anything funny about coarse, vile, obnoxious speech.  Nor, is it a ‘capital’ offense.

        Your response is acknowledged and appreciated.

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    David cherry picked the poster he wanted to reply to who furthered his narrative. He could have focused on the fact that I believe I (a conservative) was the first to reference the offensive texts; said they should suffer the consequences; and then when another poster said “bring down the hammer”, I agreed, as did several others. There then were others, I believe Frankly was one, who did bring up free speech issues and the thought police. But I would say by and large the feedback was mature, reasoned, and for swift action. David ignored that larger response.

    It is also possible the gay officer who quit wants to bury other comments or actions he took, as the referenced text may be considered by some to be rather tame.

    Ferguson: Last night I heard Kevin Jackson on the radio, the author of the book “RACE PIMPING:
    The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism”, and his claim was that the surrounding cities to Ferguson charge even higher rates for their traffic infractions. 

    Walking while black. Yes, there is a subculture in many urban cities, and the “Pimp Walk” is one example, at least in Southern California. An exaggerated sense of cool that is often absurd, often employed by those who haven’t found their direction in life. I should note that not a single one of my friends practiced it. This is an absurd point really seems to be part of the piling on tactic. Why was the mowing while black reference skipped? There is a lot of bravado and exaggerated “cool” behavior that one has to see through or navigate before one gets down to real issues, topics, and individuals.

    This story will continue to unfold. I agree, it’s curious that David didn’t bring up the officer being drunk on the job, an extremely serious and life-threatening habit to many.

    Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    FWIW, SFPD has approximately 2100 officers, so we’ve got four officers with offensive texts, and ten who are being further investigated, but those texts are reportedly less caustic or problematic. This would be less than one percent of the department.

    Of the few fellow criminals I saw listed with Sgt. Ian Furminger in his criminal trial, one appears to be African American and another Latino, so the lawlessness seems to be pretty multicultural.

  7. PhilColeman

    Acknowledging that this was just a defense attorney defending, to say free exchange of insulting words in a private setting is just an emotional release mechanism is lame. It’s probably true, but still unacceptable. Sure, you can tell a dirty joke in a private setting among long-time friends of the same gender. The funniest “lawyer jokes” I ever heard was while among a group of practicing attorneys unwinding after a day-long trial.

    But humor or disparagement involving race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion, of off-limits anytime, anywhere.

    The most offensive and outrageous exchanges I’ve ever heard towards African-Americans was while referring domestic squabbles in an African-American home. My first reaction was amusement, then embarrassment, then I was insulted–and the remarks had nothing to do with me. I guess I was insulted because I was an authority figure and they did not even seem to be aware of my presence!

    During a convention, a prominent public leader, holding a microphone, told a joke about a Mexican immigrant. It was indisputably racist, the audience was predominately white. We in the audience glanced at each other with discomfort, unsure how to respond. The speaker was of Mexican ancestry and said he could say these things. In our private conversations afterwards, we disagreed and considered him as a jerk.

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