It seems like whenever we run a story about a police officer or a group of police officers accused of misconduct, that, if there is no defense for the officers’ actions, the defense quickly shifts to an institutional defense – that 95 percent of officers and 95 percent of police encounters are above board.
Leaving aside a few problems with that defense (for one thing, where does that 95 percent figure come from and, even if it is 95, five percent is a huge numerical number of bad cops and bad incidents), I think most police departments understand that things have to change.
Davis has recently joined departments across the country with the implementation of a body camera policy. The California legislature is working on legislation that would open up transparency into investigations of police abuse and violence against members of the public, which currently is shielded from public records disclosure laws through exemptions and court rulings.
Moreover and more encouraging, I recently met with a local department that is in the process of implementing changes – and willing to have frank discussions to figure out how they can do better.
At the same time, I think the problem goes much deeper than just five percent. The shooting in Chicago of Laquan McDonald provides one such case. The action was carried out by a small number of police officers, but a far greater number of police officers conspired to attempt to lie about what occurred and conceal the truth. The problems went up the chain of command.
A few days ago, the Atlantic wrote, “How many police officers are bigots who patrol their beats, guns on their hips, with animus toward blacks, Hispanics, and other disproportionately abused groups, even as prosecutors, judges, and juries assign unusual credibility to their claims?”
Last year, San Francisco officials conducted an investigation revealing that at least five police officers, long-time officers, were texting racist and anti-gay messages to each other.
However, as the Atlantic points out, the defense was rather typical: “Police officials declared that the behavior, while abhorrent, was confined to a very few officers, an ‘old guard’ that did not represent the general culture in the department.”
Not everyone bought into that mindset. Public Defender Jeff Adachi was quoted by the LA Times saying, “A person does not become a racist overnight. These were officers who in some cases had over a decade of service. We need to look at all of them.”
Sure enough, the problem is not nearly as limited as officials or supporters of the police would like.
“San Francisco police officers sent dozens of racist and homophobic text messages in the past several months, even as another group of officers was being investigated by prosecutors for having traded similar messages,” the New York Times reports. The newly disclosed texts include “derogatory references to blacks, Asians, lesbians, gays and transgender people,” and come as the federal government investigates “complaints that some officers routinely behave in a racially biased manner.”
Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the newly found texts emerged during a probe of still more police misdeeds. They say, “DA George Gascón” acknowledged “a ‘substantial number of racist and homophobic text messages’ emerged during a recent criminal investigation.”
According to the Chronicle, “The messages, which allegedly included use of the racial slur “n—” and derogatory comments toward the LGBT community, were exchanged among at least four officers, [Police Chief Greg] Suhr said, including Lai and Lt. Curtis Liu, who also worked at Taraval [Police Station] but retired after being accused of obstructing the rape inquiry. Gascón differed with Suhr, saying at least five officers had exchanged the messages. He said the messages were exchanged on the officers’ personal cell phones, but that it had not been determined if the texts were sent and received while the officers were on duty.”
The Times reports that the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association “condemns the appalling racist behavior committed by a handful of officers.”
However, in the last texting scandal, the department’s effort to dismiss some of the officers were overturned by a superior court judge on a technicality – the statute of limitations had expired.
The Atlantic notes, “The San Francisco Police Officers Association could waive the statute of limitations in future contracts. Or it could come out in favor of a one-year statute of limitations in criminal matters that affect civilians, if it has an earnest, principled belief that punishments after one year are unfair. I strongly suspect that it will do neither.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi issued the following statement following the latest revelation: “In light of revelations that a second group of San Francisco police officers exchanged racist and homophobic text messages, my office will begin a full review of past cases that may have been tainted by these officers. I am also calling for an independent investigation into when the police chief and district attorney learned of the text messages. Every person in San Francisco deserves equal justice. It does them a grave disservice to dismiss every hateful act as an isolated incident. The police department must address the culture that lets racism fester in its ranks.”
This is a comedy of errors, one that undermines the entire system of trust. Once again, are we to give a benefit of the doubt to police officers who use such epithets, that they will not single out people based on their identities and cut corners of the law in an effort to frame them?
The system looks incapable of policing itself. The department failed to be able to terminate the officers. Their terminations were overturned on technicalities and other errors. The police officer’s union on the one hand condemns their actions, while on the other enables them.
We want to claim that it is just a few cops exercising bad judgment rather than an entire system that fails to protect us from them.
And, as Sgt. Yulanda Williams showed us a year ago, “We know that this is not an isolated incident. This problem is systemic within the San Francisco Police Department and unfortunately there have been some who have chosen to turn a blind eye.”
She said that some members of the Officers for Justice have been on the force for over 30 years and can recall similar incidents, even incidents far more egregious than the text messaging scandal.
She cited a consistent problem with the disciplinary process in the police department. She said, “When a minority officer stands before members of the command staff or the commission, unfortunately when their cases are heard, minority issues are dealt with a little bit more severe – the discipline (given to minority officers) is more severe.”
Sgt. Williams said, “I stand before you as a woman who was called… a NIGGER BITCH… I’m going to tell you something. First of all, it’s offensive to any female that has risked their lives on a daily basis for the citizens of this city. We entered into this position considering it a noble one and that is why we gave our lives and we committed ourselves to serve and protect the citizens of San Francisco.”
“These rogue cops have been disrespectful. They have brought discredit to our uniform. It is outright bigotry and hatredness. And as a victim, the thing that hurts me the most is the outright betrayal of this department,” she said forcefully.
Implicit in Ms. Williams comments is the fact that, if the police cannot protect one of their own, how are they going to protect the public?
The other problem in all of this is that, while we know about the text messages in San Francisco – and, almost by accident, if it is happening in San Francisco, you can rest assured that these attitudes are fairly prevalent across the profession.
The question is why are we giving the profession a benefit of the doubt? Privately, police officers will tell you that the profession is changing, needs to change, but there are still too many holdovers from the cowboy mentality of the past.
We should consider ourselves fortunate if the problem only goes five percent deep, and five percent is tens of thousands of officers.
—David M. Greenwald reporting