SF Board of Supes gets earful on City’s racially biased justice system 

click to enlarge Bigoted text messages revealed in a federal court filing were sent by and to former Sgt. Ian Furminger and four other officers still employed by the department. - JONAH OWEN LAMB
  • Jonah Owen Lamb
  • Bigoted text messages revealed in a federal court filing were sent by and to former Sgt. Ian Furminger and four other officers still employed by the department.
San Francisco’s justice system is deeply biased against people of color and the mechanism for rooting out and disciplining biases are weak, despite guarantees from law enforcement that they actively go after and punish bigots and the like.

Such was the message sent by leaders in the city’s justice system at a hearing Thursday before the City’s Public Safety Committee. The hearing was called to look into the racist and homophobic text messages that were made public last month in the aftermath of the corruption trial of former SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger and Officer Edmund Robles.

“Racial bias has permeated the justice system as long as I’ve worked here,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who then played for the hearing two interviews he made with people who had been subjected to biased treatment by the officers involved in the text message scandal.

One of those interviewed, Norell Wheeler, said her arrest and treatment by Furminger, in which he said she was barbaric and belonged in a cage, left a “lasting negative impression on my life. I don’t trust officers.”

Adachi also listed statistic after statistic showing how more black and brown people are arrested than white people in San Francisco, and how they are punished more severely too.

The public defender’s statements were echoed by Cristine Soto DeBerry, the chief of staff for District Attorney George Gascon, whose department announced this week the creation of a task force to investigate widespread misconduct in San Francisco’s law enforcement community.

Soto DeBerry said that Gason believes the recent misdeeds could be the tip of an iceberg when it comes to a culture of bias among The City’s law enforcement. What’s more, she said the mechanisms for reporting and discipling police wrongdoing are weak, slow and ineffective.

Joyce Hicks, who heads the Office of Citizen Complaints and was also present, has said again and again that her agency is the “gold standard” for citizen oversight of police. Her office is an independent body charged with looking into police misconduct.

Police Chief Greg Suhr on the other hand, would not say whether he thought the text messages are a sign of more endemic racial bias in the department. Instead, he focused on the discipline that will be handed out and his department’s future efforts to rid itself of such officers.

“The text messages took me completely by surprise,” he said, noting that by the end of day Friday the department’s investigation will be complete and he will hand down disciplines and recommendations to the police commission for termination of some individuals involved in the text message scandal.

Supervisor Eric Mar pressed the point, asking Suhr point blank if the department has a culture of bias or not. “Is there just a few bad apples or is it a broad based problem,” said Mar.

While Suhr did not answer the question directly, he did at least admit that bias is possible. “I have bias, everybody has bias.”

Along with auditing the personal history forms of the officers who sent or received the text messages, to see if any red flags can be discovered, the department has recently reinstated its racial profiling training program and has beefed up its efforts to recruit more people of color.

“We’re trying everything we can to make the police department look like San Francisco,” he said.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

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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