Furor erupts over bigoted SFPD texts as convicted cop calls case a misunderstanding 

click to enlarge NAACP's Reverend Amos Brown, spoke at the Hall of Justice to discuss his outrage at the racist text messages exchanged between two San Francisco police officers. He was accompanied by other supporters including Reverend Arnold Townsend of Church Without Wallls. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • NAACP's Reverend Amos Brown, spoke at the Hall of Justice to discuss his outrage at the racist text messages exchanged between two San Francisco police officers. He was accompanied by other supporters including Reverend Arnold Townsend of Church Without Wallls.

Racist and homophobic text messages sent by San Francisco police officers — revealed Friday in federal court documents — again put police and race in the spotlight, even though the man at the center of the scandal insists it's all a misunderstanding.

"This is like white supremacist propaganda," said the Anthony Brass, the attorney for officers Michael Celis and Michael Robison, who were two of the five officers who sent or received the text messages. Sources told The San Francisco Examiner the other officers involved were Rain Daugherty and Noel Schwab. The fifth officer, and only one named as sending and receiving texts, is former cop Ian Furminger, who recently received a lengthy prison term on corruption charges.

The revelation concerns texts sent in late 2011 and early 2012, but comes only months after the Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the Bay Area in reaction to the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City.

The text messages stem from a filing in the criminal case against Furminger, who was convicted in December in federal court on corruption charges related to incidents in 2009 that included theft and violating constitutional rights. He was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison. Also convicted then was former Officer Edmond Robles, who is represented by Brass and set for sentencing Wednesday. Furminger has been ordered to surrender April 3 to federal authorities.

The court filing, which was a motion in opposition to Furminger's request for bail pending an appeal of his conviction, did not name the officers who sent or received the emails. They did detail the text messages to illustrate Furmigner's lack of character. Those acts included a failure to take responsibility for his crimes, a serious alcohol addiction and "anti-social behavior," among other things.

"Furminger drinks constantly throughout the day. He was 'buzzed' during his interview with the Probation Officer," noted the filing, which also revealed that Furminger has not been paying child support.

One of the many text messages included a response to a text asking, "Do you celebrate quanza [sic] at your school?" Furminger responded: "Yeah we burn the cross on the field! Then we celebrate Whitemas."

The text messages also contained disparaging remarks about two black officers: A.J. Holder, a lieutenant at the Tenderloin Police Station, and Yolanda Williams, president of Officers for Justice.

Reached by phone Monday, Furminger told The Examiner the messages were taken out of context and he meant no harm.

"They were personal messages that were dry humor and if I offended anybody, I'm sorry," he said, adding they were jokes between friends and nothing more. "They were not really open for public consumption. They were just personal banter and being funny, even if it sounds bad. All my friends are ethnic and gay. That's no joke — all of them."

Furminger added that he has "never in 20 years once had a racial or sexist complaint ever on duty."

Since Friday, the mayor, police chief, district attorney, public defender, police officers union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others, have all condemned the texts, saying they have no place in The City or the department.

"This type of behavior from the men and women who have sworn to protect and serve is unacceptable; racial and/or sexual prejudice will not be tolerated in any department in the city and county of San Francisco," read a statement from supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen, both of whom are black.

The four officers — Celis, Robison, Daugherty and Schwab — have been under investigation since January, when the FBI handed over the texts, for "extreme bias, which has no place in the Police Department," noted Officer Albie Esparza. All four were reassigned in February to positions without public contact pending the investigation.

If the investigation reveals biased behavior, the Police Department will recommend to the Police Commission that the officers be fired.

On Monday, faith leaders, including a representative from The City's Interfaith Council and the Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, condemned the emails as evidence that San Francisco's image as an inclusive, fair and just city is not always the reality.

"Our city of St. Francis, unfortunately, has leadership in the Police Department that does not take seriously the fact that racism, homophobia ... are in our Police Department," Brown said on the steps of the Hall of Justice.

The Rev. Arnold Townsend echoed Brown's statement, pointing out that the issues that have plagued Ferguson's police are not isolated.

"We are certainly disappointed and concerned. I am certainly not surprised," Townsend said, noting that the idea that racism does not exist in San Francisco or the Police Department is false.

"It is a state of denial for anybody in leadership in this city to suggest that Ferguson is not everywhere," Brown said. "It is in different forms and fashions — even in San Francisco."

The group called for an independent investigation for bias in all of the recent cases involving the four officers. Thus far, the Public Defender's Office has identified 120 cases in the last 2½ years in which officers Celis and Schwab testified.

The Police Officers Association — which recently said San Francisco police bare little resemblance to fellow officers in Ferguson, or its racially biased policing — also condemned the text messages.

"While ... we understand that 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 pride ourselves on our officers' commitment to diversity both as a department and an association and we are incredibly proud of our record," said part of the statement, which also noted that all officers should be afforded due process. It went on to say that these text messages are not emblematic of the department and that the union backs Police Chief Greg Suhr's reassignment of the officers.

Not all piled on the scorn for the text messages.

Brian Getz, the lawyer who represented Furminger in his federal case, said the texts are being taken completely out of context.

"He is the most tolerant person I have ever met in my life," Getz told The Examiner. "Never in 20 years on the force has he ever been accused of being racist or homophobic."

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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