Fallout From SFPD Racist Texts: Officer Resigns Amid Scandal

Four San Francisco police officers are under investigation for their involvement in a series of racist and homophobic texts made public in a federal court filing Friday, March 13.

Four San Francisco police officers are under investigation for their involvement in a series of racist and homophobic texts made public in a federal court filing Friday, March 13. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Update, 4:45 p.m. Thursday:

One of four San Francisco police officers, who was reassigned while the department’s internal affairs division investigates their involvement in racist and homophobic text messages, has resigned.

Michael Robison, who served as an SFPD officer for 23 years, resigned Wednesday, his attorney Anthony Brass confirmed today.

“He resigned in order to spare himself the stress of living knowing that he was going to be terminated,” Brass said. “The chief’s comments that the four officers would be terminated following the investigation let him know what the outcome of this would be, really no matter what.”

Police Chief Greg Suhr had said he would seek to terminate any officers found by the investigation to be biased. Suhr did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Text messages recovered from former SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger’s cell phone were revealed in a federal court filing last week opposing Furminger’s request for bail while he appeals his conviction on federal fraud and conspiracy charges.

The messages initially implicated officers Michael Celis, Rain Daugherty and Noel Schwab, in addition to Robison. Furminger’s motion was denied, and he’s scheduled to surrender in early April for a prison sentence of three years and five months.

An SFPD spokesman said Thursday that 10 additional officers caught up in the probe are no longer under investigation. They had traded messages with Furminger, but those were “deemed not inappropriate,” the spokesman said.

Robison was openly gay and was quoted in The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine in a 1998 article about challenges faced by gay police officers:

“The `good ol’ boys’ system is on its way out, and the newer generation that’s replaced them sees things from a more open-minded standpoint. We have a common saying among people in the department: `When you’re at work you’re all wearing blue.’ I really hand it to the people who came out back then because they really-paved-the way for us.”

“Mike Robison is not a racist,” Brass said. “He works with people of varied ethnicity every day. He understands bigotry from the other side because as an openly gay officer, he exposes himself to a great deal of bigotry and well understands the hurt of that, and would never want to impose that on other people. The problem is that there really is no explanation that’s going to satisfy his chief, the community or anyone regarding these texts. The texts are just literally — they speak for themselves — and there’s no changing that.”

Update, 5:15 p.m. Monday: San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has joined the city’s top prosecutor, public defender and police chief in condemning racist and homophobic texts that a court filing shows were exchanged among a group of San Francisco police officers.

The texts were disclosed Friday in a motion involving former San Francisco police Sgt. Ian Furminger, who is facing 41 months in prison after being convicted in December on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors opposing Furminger’s motion to remain free on bail bolstered their argument by including transcripts of texts between him and former SFPD colleagues.

The messages contain various disparaging references to African-Americans, Latinos, Filipinos and gay people. Some of them were directed at specific officers.

Sgt. Yulanda Williams is president of Officers for Justice, an association of SFPD officers formed in 1968 to advocate for the civil rights of minorities, women and LGBT people. One of the text exchanges that refers to her uses a derogatory phrase offensive to both black people and women.

“It was rather shocking to know that there were people working around me that had this type of ideology,” Williams said in an interview with KQED’s Sara Hossaini. Williams added that she is acquainted with Furminger and one of the officers under investigation, Michael Robison.

“When I read it, it was very apparent to me that the messages were that of Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy ideology,” she said. “And I found them to be despicable, sickening, unacceptable, heart-wrenching conduct by members of a noble profession of policing.”

Officers for Justice released a statement today calling for complete transparency and expressing suspicion that “Textgate” goes beyond the four officers who San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr confirmed are under investigation for exchanging the messages with Furminger.

Suhr has said the department will pursue disciplinary action against the officers and conduct a review of its hiring and training policies in light of the disclosures.

“It is both shocking and disturbing to hear that four San Francisco police officers are under investigation for such heinous and despicable statements,” Mayor Lee said in a statement Monday. “The content of these text messages displays a bias that is incompatible with the values of our City and incompatible with the ability to perform sworn duties as a police officer.”

Lee said that he expected the officers involved to be fired “if these statements are attributable to any San Francisco police officer.”

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the problem of racial bias in the SFPD goes beyond the four officers currently under investigation. He’s calling for a federal probe much like the U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department released earlier this month.

“These texts display deep-rooted racism within members of the San Francisco Police Department,” Adachi said in an interview Monday. “Some of these texts are even more outrageous and hurtful than some of the emails from the Ferguson Police Department report.”

Adachi cited a city report from 2013 that found 56 percent of San Francisco’s jail inmates are African-American, despite making up just 6 percent of the city’s residents.

“What is the training that officers receive, and why do we have such a disproportionate rate of arresting and jailing African-Americans in San Francisco?” Adachi asked.

District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement he is “deeply disturbed” by the offensive messages.

“There is no place for bigotry in San Francisco,” the statement said. “In order to ensure our criminal justice system is fair and equitable, my office is conducting an immediate assessment of every prosecution within the past ten years where these officers were involved.”

Update, 11:30 a.m. Monday: San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr says the department will examine hiring and training policies in the wake of the disclosure of racist and homophobic text messages swapped among several police officers.

“We will look at the hiring/background processes to identify how anyone capable of statements of such extreme bias could be hired as police officers in the first place,” Suhr wrote in a text reply to questions from KQED. “We have training scheduled on implicit bias and we will be doing more.”

Attorneys representing three of four San Francisco officers under investigation for their part in the offensive texts have confirmed their clients’ identities.

“They’re mortified to be involved in anything like this,” said defense attorney Tony Brass, who is representing Officers Michael Robison and Michael Celis. “They understand that this is going to have dire consequences for them both professionally and in the public view.”

The texts were made public in a court filing Friday by federal prosecutors opposing a bid by former San Francisco police Sgt. Ian Furminger to remain free on on bail while he appeals a conviction for fraud and conspiracy. The filing (read below) discloses only some of the text messages collected from Furminger’s cell phone.

The texts repeatedly use epithets referring to black people, as well as disparaging references to Mexican and Filipino people. Some texts from Furminger also include slurs about gay people.

Brass said he doesn’t yet know which texts were sent or received by which officers.

“There’s four police officers involved and the one person that is identified as the hub of this is Ian Furminger,” Brass said. “But whether Mike Celis or Mike Robison are involved in the ones that are quite shocking, I don’t know.”

Brass said his first meeting with Police Department internal affairs investigators is scheduled for March 25, and his clients believe they could be fired.

Alison Wilkinson represents Officer Rain Daugherty. She confirmed via email that her client is under investigation for texts he traded with Furminger.

“Officer Daugherty is appropriately ashamed by his impulsive and insensitive banter,” Wilkinson wrote, “and accepts full responsibility for the content of those text messages that he sent, which are by no means a reflection of his true character or his style of policing.”

A department spokeswoman said Suhr would recommend all four officers be fired if the investigation proved racial bias. The final decision lies with the city’s Police Commission.

The San Francisco Chronicle identified the fourth officer under investigation as Noel Schwab. His attorney did not return calls for comment.

Mark Goldrosen is the latest in a series of attorneys representing Furminger.

“Ian Furminger is not a racist or homophobe,” Goldrosen wrote in an email. “His closest friends, both at work and in his social life, include many people of different races and sexual orientations.”

Furminger’s motion for bail pending appeal presents a dedicated, veteran police officer who coaches youth sports and volunteers at school functions, including as a physical education teacher for his children’s schools. One of the texts released Friday references Furminger’s concern about black children attending his son’s school.

“Furminger actively promotes the fantasy that he is a person of character,” federal prosecutors wrote in their response to the motion. “Although these sort of overtly racist views sadly still are expressed in some communities, it is shocking and appalling to find a police officer in San Francisco who would give voice to them. Furminger’s willingness to do so — which exemplifies his erratic and anti-social behavior — should be taken into account.”

Original post, Friday, March 13:

The San Francisco Police Department says it’s investigating four current members of the force who reportedly joined in an exchange of racist and homophobic text messages with an SFPD sergeant recently convicted on theft and corruption charges, KQED has learned.

The texts (read below), which were disclosed in a court filing by federal prosecutors on Friday, all involve former Sgt. Ian Furminger, convicted in December for his role in a series of thefts from drug suspects.

Furminger is appealing his conviction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was formerly a supervisor in the Police Department’s Mission District plainclothes unit.

The Police Department says the texts, sent between late 2011 and the middle of 2012, implicate four other officers who are now the subjects of a department inquiry.

“It’s an internal affairs investigation looking into officers who have shown extreme bias, which has no place in the San Francisco Police Department,” Sgt. Monica Macdonald said. “The officers were reassigned some time ago while the investigation is under way.”

Federal prosecutors included more than two dozen text conversations in a federal court filing opposing Furminger’s request to remain out on bail while he awaits his appeal. He was sentenced to three years, five months in prison last month.

The texts show Furminger and other San Francisco police officers repeatedly swapping slurs about black people and gay people, including other police officers. In one exchange on Nov. 9, 2011, Furminger writes about his son’s school:

“We got two blacks at my boys school and they are brother and sister! There cause dad works for the school district and I am watching them like hawks.”

The response, from an unnamed civilian: “Do you celebrate qaunza [sic] at your school?”

Furminger: “Yeah we burn the cross on the field! Then celebrate Whitemas … Its worth every penny to live here [Walnut Creek] away from the savages.”

An unnamed officer texted the phrase “White power” to Furminger, who later repeats the phrase in a text to an SFPD officer. He also texted “White power family” to a civilian, followed by a redacted reference to his home address.

An anonymous SFPD officer had a suggestion for Furminger after the convicted ex-sergeant texted that a friend of his wife’s was visiting with her husband, who is black:

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots,” the response says. “Its not against the law to put an animal down.”

Furminger responded: “Well said.”

Furminger also repeatedly calls another officer a “fag,” and makes racist comments about Mexican and Filipino people.

While the texts were all recovered from Furminger’s personal cellphone, it’s not immediately clear whether the officers he was communicating with were using department-issued phones.

Sgt. Macdonald said it doesn’t necessarily matter, though, as the texts appear to violate SFPD’s policy prohibiting biased policing either way.

“If someone’s biased, whether this occurs on duty or off duty, it’s something we take very seriously,” she said.

Furminger’s attorney did not immediately respond for a request for comment. Federal Judge Charles Breyer is expected to take up Furminger’s bail motion next week.

Read the government’s filing below:


KQED’s Ted Goldberg, Dan Brekke and Sara Hossaini contributed to this report.

This post contains reporting from Bay City News.

  • Leiris Attenborough

    Racist cops? Homophobic officers of the law? no way! It’s just all so shocking.

  • Faith Luber

    I think you meant that he was FORMERLY a supervisor, not FORMALLY.

    • Dan Brekke

      You are correct. Thanks for the edit.

  • I believe there is a saying about vermin and parasites like this, that goes something like “If you see one cockroach, you probably already have an infestation”. So I guess we shouldn’t be optimistic about finding at least five with SFPD, eh?

    • truth hurts

      Well put, but cockroaches multiply more than 5 fortunately. This is not surprising to many that already know about these vermin. A lot.of them are born and raised in San Francisco. Many of them come from the local Catholic high schools. Racist pigzzz!

  • Kendell Thomas

    Yes, ignore the real issue by focusing on correct spelling.

  • Steve

    I noticed the government’s filing mentioned that Furminger known for “throwing small explosives out of moving cars for fun”. That is absolutely terrifying. Does anyone have further details on the explosives incidents?

  • SilBot64

    “Ian Furminger is not a racist or a homophobe.”

    He only signs off his texts with “White Power”, says he burns crosses to lower his blood pressure, and is watching black children “like hawks”.

    But don’t confuse that with racism.

    I’m sure his PR flack will explain exactly what it actually IS.

  • Of all the places on Earth to go, these guys lived in SF? They must have been masochists or been there since the dawn of time! Either way, I’m sure they are little more than the office Neandertals that exist in every large organization. I discuss the recent racist scare in policing on my blog here: https://officerfriendlyblog.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/lies-damn-lies-and-statistics-2/

    • JustMe

      Only 25% of the SFPD actually lives in SF. The rest mostly live in less racially diverse parts of San Mateo and Contra Costa Counties. they are attracted by the high pay and don’t actually have roots in the community that they serve, which is a contributing factor to the problem.

      • Poor word choice. I should have said “work” instead of “live.” The way I hear it, most SFPD cops couldn’t afford to live in SF if they wanted to. That said, most cops don’t live in the cities they patrol for two reasons. They can’t afford to, and/or they don’t want their families targeted by those we protect that community from.

      • truth hurts

        You are absolutely correct. Willie Brown understood this problem. He tried to pass a law that would require sfpd to live in the city. It got shot down. And this was years ago. So they have known, for a long time, that this has been an issue.

  • truth hurts

    Don’t buy the fact that Gascon and the other top cops did not know they have sick, racist pigz such as these vernin in their KLAN. Thats just BS.They hve a history of racism, this is not the first time SFPD has come under fire by the feds.All the cops know that SFPD is infested with Racist cops. Thr superiors hire them this way. The superiors are racist. It does not take rocket science to figure this out. So if they want to get to the bottom of this, they ate going to have to start rolling heads from the top. Gascon has a lot of answering to do. Isn’t he from Arizina? Ummmm, starting to see a pattern already. If they don’t start at the top nothing will change. Trust me!!!

  • Pathetica

    He resigned so he wouldn’t feel stressed about being fired? Not because everyone now knows he is a racist, disgusting person, but to not be stressed?

Author

Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a criminal justice reporter at KQED. He covers policing policy, crime and the courts.

He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at City College of San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University's journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Prior to joining KQED in 2013, Alex freelanced for various news outlets including the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Bay Guardian.

Alex is proud of his work at KQED on a spike in fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo, which uncovered that a single officer shot and killed three suspects over the course of five months. Alex's work with a team at KQED on police encounters with people in psychiatric crisis was cited in amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. He received the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists Best Scoop award in 2015 for exposing a series of bigoted text messages swapped by San Francisco police officers. He was honored with 2010 San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for breaking news reporting on the trial following the shooting of Oscar Grant. Email: aemslie@kqed.org. Twitter: @SFNewsReporter.

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