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Bigoted San Francisco Police Officers Discover That in the Digital Age, the Whole World’s Watching in a Whole New Way 

Wednesday, Mar 25 2015
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Police officers are held to a much higher standard than the general population. In other words, cops are not supposed to engage in conduct unbecoming an officer of the law -- at least not anything that might become fodder for a viral video.

But what about when they're engaging in unbecoming conduct, such as sending and receiving racist text messages to one another on personal cellphones?

Much to the chagrin of other San Francisco cops, the U.S. District Attorney last week made public some racist and homophobic text exchanges that were sent from officers' private cellphones. While it's unclear as to whether the texts were sent while the cops were on or off the clock, these text messages were traced back to former San Francisco police Officer Ian Furminger, who is already at the center of a corruption case — and therein lies the issue. Those texts — which involved four other officers not accused of any crimes — became part of the public record.

"Get your pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots," one message read. "Well said!" an officer responded. The conversation continued: "U may have to kill the half breed kids too. Don't worry. Their an abomination of nature anyway [sic]."

The now-public messages haven't helped Furminger, who recently filed a motion to be released on bail while appealing a December conviction on federal corruption charges; in order for that motion to be granted, he would have to prove he was not a flight-risk or a danger to the community. But now the DA is using the offensive content of those text messages to suggest that Furminger is a racist and a character of ill will, the nefarious type who shouldn't be free on bail.

The text messages were uncovered during an FBI investigation into Furminger's corruption case, according to court documents. In this case, the messages, while highly offensive and expressing violence and cruelty, were sent from Furminger's personal cellphone to other officers' personal phones; they were never intended for public consumption. Anthony Brass, the attorney for two of the officers involved, said his clients were publicly disgraced and humiliated.

Cops are indeed allowed to have their own private conversations, even if they go against SFPD's moral code. They are not, however, entitled to that privacy when they're at the center of a criminal investigation, as Furminger is. That lack of privacy also extends to whomever is on the receiving end of the text messages.

"Any notion that you might have privacy in your texts or emails or even the websites you look at is over," says Brass. "You can be looked at for the most private communications and judged in that way."

While the names of the other officers involved were redacted from the court documents, police department sources were quick to reveal the identities. Michael Robison, one of the implicated officers, resigned from the department last week, while it has been said that Michael Celis and two others involved have been transferred to positions that keep them from interacting with the public.

University of San Francisco professor Susan Freiwald, who writes on cyber law and information privacy, says that laws surrounding privacy are based on the type of technology [a cellphone versus a department-issued pager] used to send and receive messages, not on the content of those messages. So the FBI could have secured a warrant to pull Furminger's text messages from a provider as needed in the investigation, regardless of the offensive content.

"We should have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our text messages," says Freiwald. "But that doesn't mean that they are completely protected from being seen by police or investigators."

As for the aftermath of police displaying their bigotry, more than 1,000 cases related to those officers will be reviewed for bias -- and potentially tossed.

"One does not hold these views at home and not have these views affect their work," Public Defender Jeff Adachi said at a press conference last week.

Riding on the coattails of anti-police brutality protests that swept the Bay Area after the East Coast killings of unarmed black men by white police officers, reaction to the text messages has affirmed that the scary content of those messages outweighs any issue the public might have with cops' privacy.

It also underscores a growing concern among communities of color: Police are targeting them.

De'Anthony Jones, who grew up in public housing in San Francisco, said he once objected to the search of one of his friends by the SFPD, telling officers his friend was a good kid who sent money to his grandmother.

"I approached the officers and said, 'I hope you understand where I'm coming from,' and offered to shake their hands," Jones told a reporter. "They said, 'We don't shake your hands,' as if it's an us-against-them culture."

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