POLITICS
05/05/2016 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2016

How An Accused San Francisco Cop’s Rape Case Blew The Lid On A Racism Text Scandal

Police knew about the texts for months before releasing them.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Police Department has been hit hard in recent days by yet another scandal involving offensive text messages. But what's remarkable is that the hateful language even came to light.

Authorities recently arrested a retired lieutenant and a former officer on separate charges, and in the midst of that scandal has further been embarrassed by the release of a batch of racist and homophobic messages between them and two other cops. 

The messages that included derogatory remarks about several marginalized groups, including blacks, Latinos and LGBT people, emerged while authorities probed the cops over allegations that one had raped a woman in August -- yet San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr only loosened his grip on the texts last Friday.

That came two days after the district attorney's office filed charges against former Lt. Curtis Liu for allegedly tipping off Jason Lai that he'd been accused of rape and for later lying to supervisors about it.  

The slowly building and complicated controversy took a turn on Wednesday, when Liu denied through his attorney to Bay City News that he was the source of any of the texts that have shocked the famously open-minded city. Liu also pled not guilty Wednesday to charges that he interfered with the police investigation into the rape accusation against Lai while both were still members of the force. 

This is the second time since late 2014 that the public has learned that groups of city cops used derogatory language in messages to each other. The department appeared reluctant to release this second set of messages, but ultimately relented amid growing public pressure. 

San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr (L) and FBI Special Agent in Charge David Johnson (R) hold a news conference to discuss
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr (L) and FBI Special Agent in Charge David Johnson (R) hold a news conference to discuss the arrest of San Francisco political and media consultant Ryan Chamberlain on June 3, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

The latest blemish for the department originated with allegations that Lai raped a woman that he'd met on patrol. Authorities didn't prosecute Lai for the alleged sexual attack, but the internal affairs division and district attorney have since said that they uncovered other wrongdoing. 

In March, Lai was busted on misdemeanor charges of misusing data from criminal and motor vehicle records. He's pleaded not guilty.

Days after Lai faced charges, the police department revealed that Lai and three others "had sent text messages containing reprehensible racial and homophobic remarks," according to a statement. The department said it had known about the material for months and that the officers had been suspended in the fall while the Police Commission evaluated how to discipline them. 

Initially, Suhr's office declined to release the contents of the messages, because charges were pending against Liu. 

Public pressure, however, rose quickly. The city's public defender Jeff Adachi called for an immediate investigation.

The first glimpse of the messages came weeks later on April 26 almost by chance. Adachi's office recently obtained some of the texts, because it was defending a robbery suspect and Lai had been one of the cops involved in his arrest. As part of the discovery process, the district attorney gave the public defender Lai's texts that had been found while the rape accusation was being investigated. 

Lai wrote that blacks were "barbarians," and like "a pack of wild animals on the loose." He also used a Cantonese insult for blacks and wrote "too bad none of them died." The texts also insulted Latinos, Indians and LGBT people.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adach
Eric Risberg/AP
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adach

That was just the tip of the iceberg, according to Adachi. He called for more texts to be released, and said that at least 207 criminal cases, including three murders, should be reviewed to see if Lai's apparent biases influenced the outcome. 

“It is chilling how casually former officer Lai dehumanizes the citizens he was sworn to serve,” Adachi said in a statement at the time. “He wished violence upon the very people he was being paid to protect and none of his colleagues turned him in.”

The larger pool of texts, that were released on April 29, included slurs like "nigger" and "beaner," to talk about suspects and used "gay" as an insult for coworkers. The names of the senders and recipients were redacted:

"We think it is important for the public to know that we conducted the investigation, discovered the texts and took immediate action, and that those responsible for such hateful texts are no longer police officers,” Suhr said. "Those former members betrayed the public’s trust and the trust of the right-minded, hard-working men and women of the San Francisco Police Department."

Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee scrambled to quickly control the outcry. Suhr announced that all officers would complete anti-harassment training, the Associated Press reported. Lee, meanwhile, wrote a letter to the city's 2,100 police officers asking them to report colleagues who display bigoted attitudes or behavior. 

The police department has been reeling for months, as it faced widespread criticism for a series of controversial fatal shootings by officers that have led to calls for Suhr to resign and prompted the Department of Justice to investigate. Five hunger strikers demanding Suhr's ouster have camped outside the police station in the Mission neighborhood for two weeks.

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