Criminal cases of 5 San Francisco officers to be reviewed after they are found exchanging racist, homophobic texts

A police officer patrolling downtown San Francisco on Feb 4.
A police officer patrolling downtown San Francisco on Feb 4. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco's chief prosecutor said on Thursday (March 31) that he has ordered a review of criminal cases likely to have numbered in the hundreds involving any of five police officers found to have exchanged racist and homophobic text messages among themselves.

District Attorney George Gascon said he recommended in a letter on Wednesday to city Police Chief Gregory Suhr that the officers be assigned to desk duty to avoid adding to the potential case load that may be tainted by disclosure of their bias.

But in a written reply to Ms Gascon, the police chief said he had immediately suspended the officers when their conduct first came to his department's attention last August, and that two of the officers had since left the force.

Two others are facing termination proceedings, Mr Suhr said in his letter, released by his department.

The racist and anti-gay text messages in question came to light during a review of 5,000 pages of material turned over by the police in an unrelated investigation.

With some 20,000 additional pages still to be examined, Gascon said more officers may be implicated.

"So I don't know if more officers will be involved," he said. "While the majority of San Francisco Police Department officers are hardworking men and women who serve with distinction, we cannot have this kind of conduct within the criminal justice system."

Prosecutors have a duty to bring the bigoted texts to the attention of defence lawyers whose clients were charged in cases that were handled by the five officers and where discrimination on the basis of race or sexual orientation could be at issue, Mr Gascon said.

"They provide evidence of racial bias, which is impeachable evidence to the prosecution," he added.

The president of the San Francisco Police Officers' Association union Martin Halloran condemned "the appalling racist behavior committed by a handful of officers", in a statement quoted by news media.

The conduct in question ran from 2014 to late 2015, overlapping with the time frame of last year's police texting scandal, although Mr Gascon said there was no apparent connection between the two.

Mr Gascon's disclosure comes a year after 14 other members of the San Francisco Police Department were caught up in a similar texting scandal that forced a review of more than 4,000 cases involving the officers who were implicated, including 1,600 in which charges were brought, with 13 dismissals so far, city prosecutors said.

The latest inquiry surfaced amid heightened scrutiny of police encounters with members of minority groups following numerous high-profile killings of unarmed black people by police across the United States since mid-2014.

The police department sought to fire seven of the original group of 14 officers, but a judge ruled against the dismissals, citing the statute of limitations.