A group of San Francisco police officers who’ve enjoyed roughly three years of paid leave while challenging their dismissals in court may finally be fired for sending reams of racist, homophobic texts to one another, judges decided Wednesday.
The California Supreme Court declined to hear the officers’ case, opening the door for city police officials to finalize the group firings they initiated in 2015. More than a dozen officers were shown exchanging jokes about burning crosses and slurring the citizens they served in text messages exposed by the corruption trial of former Sergeant Ian Furminger.
Furminger was eventually sentenced to less than four years in prison for a slew of criminal acts under color of law. Some of the officers whose biases were on display in the texts resigned quickly, but nine of the 14 decided to fight for their jobs and paychecks. Initially, a lower court held that too much time had passed between when the texts were sent and when the officers were disciplined, but a state appeals court overturned that finding because city officials had not been privvy to the texts until after Furminger was charged.
The ping-ponging appeals lingered for three years in the state’s courts, until Wednesday’s decision to decline a final high-court hearing. The officers were kept on the city’s payroll throughout that time after a judge rejected the department’s initial move to suspend them without pay pending the case’s resolution. The city had paid the officers $2 million not to work as of this spring, according to San Francisco’s legal team.
Though the city’s now prevailed on the question of which timeline should apply to its disciplinary decisions in the scandal, the officers’ legal team raised points that suggest the department’s handling of “Textgate” was motivated more by public outcry than a sincere internal belief that the officers’ use of hate speech in private chatter should disqualify them from public safety work.
SFPD brass initiated disciplinary investigations of other officers while the Furminger investigation was still running, based on information kicked loose by the joint city-federal pursuit of Furminger’s crew of shakedown boys. The officers who sent the racist messages were only canned after a public court filing in the Furminger matter put their grotesque conversations in the headlines, the group’s lawyers argued.
The appeal team also named names. Two Lieutenants — Jerome DeFilippo and Michelle Jean — were aware of the texts and didn’t want to go after the men involved, according to the officers’ court filings. Jean in particular “was not concerned with this misconduct because she had worked with each of the [officers], knew them to be good, effective police officers, and had never seen any of them act or enforce the laws in a racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic manner,” the lawyers wrote in one brief.
The case’s languid path to resolution typifies the immense and specialized protections that police officers enjoy from basic accountability. Officers around the country are assured vast and overlapping avenues for appealing discipline even when department brass deem them unfit to serve. Roughly one in four officers fired in the biggest police departments from 2006 to 2016 was able to force their chief to hire them back, the Washington Post found in a 2017 investigation.