On Feb. 27, 2014, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr sat uncomfortably at a long, sparkling glass table in front of a pack of quote-hungry reporters. Six SFPD officers had just been indicted for stealing from suspects, the thefts caught on video. In a voice quivering with emotion, Suhr gave a somber statement.
“Our department is shaken,” the veteran cop with a shaved head said into a dozen TV microphones. “This is as serious as an issue as I can recall in my time in the department.”
In the 15 months since that press conference, however, that “serious issue” has snowballed into something much bigger and much more dangerous. On Thursday, prosecutors released racist and homophobic text messages belonging to one of the six indicted officers. Laced with lurid phrases like “cross burning lowers blood pressure!” and repeated use of the N-word, the texts are “reprehensible,” Suhr admits.
But they are only part of the problem in San Francisco, a city often celebrated for its inclusiveness and diversity. According to prosecutors, a rapidly expanding criminal probe has unearthed bias by 14 officers. Even worse, the prejudiced texts hint at a culture of bias in the department that could have landed innocent people behind bars. Prosecutors say they are now examining 3,000 arrests, almost half of which never resulted in criminal charges.
“If just one individual was wrongly imprisoned because of bias on the part of these officers — that’s one too many,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon told the L.A. Times.
Both the corruption case and offensive text messages center on a plainspoken cop who was hailed as a hero before the double scandal brought him down.
Back in 1998, Ian Furminger was walking his beat with his partner when they spotted a fight between a wealthy ad executive and a prostitute. When the cops approached the car, the businessman, John Smart, allegedly threw his Mercedes-Benz into reverse, pinning Furminger against a parking meter. When Smart drove at Furminger’s partner, the two police officers opened fire, killing Smart, who had crack cocaine in his pocket, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Furminger received SFPD’s highest honor, the Gold Medal for Valor, for the shooting in 2000. The hero soon became an outspoken defender of his department. When then police chief Earl Sanders and other top officials were indicted in 2003, Furminger told reporters that his command officers were being “hung out to dry.”
“They deserve better than this,” he told the Chronicle.
And when his department was accused of routinely using excessive force against suspects in 2006, the newly promoted sergeant once again waded into the debate.
“We aren’t out here arresting soccer moms. These are hard-core criminals,” he said. “People like to challenge us. People resist quite a bit,” Furminger said. “We use force sufficient to overcome resistance, and no more.”
It was, therefore, a surprise when the outspoken sergeant was wrapped up in the corruption scandal last year. Prosecutors accused Furminger and two other cops of pocketing items seized during a 2009 arrest, including a $500 Apple gift card that another officer used to buy himself an iPhone. In a second incident, the officers allegedly took confiscated marijuana and gave it to informants to smoke and sell in return for a share of the profit.
One of the other cops flipped, and Furminger was convicted and sentenced to 41 months in February.
That’s when a case of a few dirty cops suddenly became a debate over an entire department and its attitude towards African Americans, gays and other minorities.
In response to Furminger’s motion for bail pending an appeal of his case, prosecutors filed court papers arguing the former police sergeant was a racist, homophobic alcoholic.
“Furminger actively promotes the fantasy that he is a person of character, pointing to awards that he has received as a police officer,” prosecutors wrote. “In doing so, he simply disregards the conduct for which he was convicted, as well as his behavior as a police officer that included throwing small explosives out of moving cars for fun and stealing antique call boxes. He also fails to advise the Court that he is a virulent racist and homophobe who, even while a police officer, felt free to share his views with other individuals, including other San Francisco police officers.”
Prosecutors then introduced dozens of Furminger’s offensive text messages. When another SFPD officer texted him about the promotion of a black officer, Furminger replied: “F—– n—–.” When a fellow cop texted that he was boarding a train, Furminger warned him to “watch out for BM’s,” or black males. He sent friends messages about “White power” and the KKK, poked fun at Filipinos, Hispanics and gays, and said he was “watching” like a hawk the two black kids at his son’s school.
When a friend asked him via text if he celebrated Kwanzaa at his kid’s schools, Furminger replied: “Yeah we burn the cross on the field! Then we celebrate Whitemas.”
In a TV interview, Furminger said he was sorry if the texts offended anyone but they were just “banter amongst friends.”
“My best friends and closest friends are all black, gay, Chinese or Asian, and Hispanic,” Furminger said. “That’s who I socialize with. That’s who I spend my time with.”
“Those texts are not a reflection of who I am,” he added. “It’s a rebound reaction to a politically correct environment.”
Prosecutors are taking the messages seriously, however. Their investigation has spiraled far beyond the sergeant to include 14 current and former SFPD officers. After initially announcing that racism and homophobia could have affected as many as 1,000 criminal cases, prosecutors have since tripled that number. They are now combing through cases for evidence that officers’ bias influenced arrests. Convictions could be overturned and pending cases could be dismissed, according to the L.A. Times.
But a cursory glance at Furminger’s record raises red flags that glow even brighter in light of his offensive texts.
In 2005, Furminger was one of three cops accused of forcing a gay man — caught urinating in the street — to mop up his mess with his own hair. Furminger escaped discipline but members of the Police Commission approved an $83,000 settlement in the case.
The offensive texts also raise questions about Furminger’s role in a deadly 2001 movie theater shooting. Idriss Stelley, a 23-year-old African American man with mental problems, was acting erratically when Furminger and other cops were called to the cinema. Furminger sprayed Stelley with mace, but other officers opened fire, killing Stelley and injuring a cop in the crossfire. Stelley’s mom received a $500,000 settlement.
Prosecutors say it will take them several months to scour old cases for signs of cop prejudice. Eight officers currently on the force have been suspended. Last month, Chief Greg Suhr said he expected those officers to be fired. “Their conduct is incompatible with that of a police officer,” he said, according to the Chronicle.
But the task of cleaning out the department is complicated by the fact that Suhr himself has been caught up in a lawsuit. The city recently paid $725,000 to settle accusations the police chief fired an employee for exposing his mishandling of a domestic violence case.