'Wild animals': Racist texts sent by San Francisco police officer, documents show

Story highlights

  • EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains offensive language and may not be suitable for all audiences
  • The texts were discovered as part of a probe into a sexual assault allegation
  • It's the second time San Francisco Police Department has faced a racist texting scandal

(CNN)"I hate that beaner," one text reads, "but I think the nig is worse."

"Indian ppl are disgusting," proclaims another.
    "Burn down walgreens and kill the bums," a third message states.
    These and other racist and homophobic text messages were allegedly sent by a San Francisco police officer at the center of an ongoing scandal that is the most recent disturbing revelation for the beleaguered San Francisco Police Department.
    CNN has exclusively obtained a list of dozens of offensive texts sent to and from Officer Jason Lai. The content has not been previously disclosed. The list is not a full history of his texts.
    Lai resigned from the department this month, according to a police spokesman.
    Don Nobles, Lai's attorney, said the texts were "not reflective of who he is" and that "there is no evidence he carried out any of those sentiments as an officer."
    "He was well-liked and well-loved on his beat," he said of the six-year-veteran.
    The texts were seized from Officer Jason Lai's personal phone. He's resigned from the department.

    Second scandal in as many years

    Nobles said the texts were seized from Lai's personal phone and had been exchanged with some of his closest friends on the police force as well as with people he had befriended on his beat.
    "It's hard to say any of those things in context," the lawyer said, "but there is context to it."
    It marks the second time in as many years the department has been the subject of a racist texting scandal and could undermine Chief Greg Suhr's assertion that the problem is limited to a relative handful of officers and not part a broader cultural problem within the ranks, as critics contend.
    At a press conference Tuesday, an emotional Suhr said reading the text messages sent by Lai and other SFPD officers "literally makes me sick to my stomach."
    "I apologize to the public," he said. "We are better than this."
    Suhr said texts sent by three other officers implicated in the scandal were "no less reprehensible" than those sent by Lai and detailed in a CNN report published Tuesday.
    The chief reiterated he has "no tolerance for officers who hold such reprehensible views."
    "The message is clear to both the officers in the department and the public: We will not have this in the San Francisco Police Department," he said. "The culture of this police department is, you demonstrate yourself to be a racist and a homophobe, and you're not going to be a police officer in San Francisco."
    By years end, the chief said, he plans to have the entire department undergo "bias training" to help ensure every officer understands and embraces that message.
    "I have already taken that training as has the entire command staff," he said.
    Asked by a reporter whether he planned to step down, Suhr replied: "I don't have any plans to resign. I plan to move the department forward in the fashion I'm discussing with you right now."
    Lai allegedly sent dozens of racist and homophobic texts.

    Texts reference President Obama, LeBron James

    In addition to disparaging blacks, Hispanics and Indians, Lai used coded language to talk about gay officers, according to a source, and made a blanket statement impugning residents of the city's largely minority and low-income Tenderloin district.
    "They're all drug dealers in the TL," his text stated.
    The officer also referred to a draft of an official incident report as "a story I wrote today."
    The messages, sent in 2014 and 2015, were discovered as part of a police department probe into a sexual assault allegation against Lai by a woman last year. Prosecutors declined to file rape charges in the case, citing insufficient evidence.
    Lai has since been charged with multiple misdemeanor counts of illegally accessing Department of Motor Vehicles computers for a nonofficial purpose. He is scheduled to be arraigned May 3.
    Prosecutors recently turned over the text messages to the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, which is representing a defendant in a case in which Lai was involved. Evidence of biased attitudes could be used to undermine the officer's credibility and result in cases being dismissed. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi provided the texts to CNN at the request of reporters.
    In the messages, Lai makes a disparaging joke about President Barack Obama and says he hates basketball player LeBron James.
    "F--- that nig," he says.
    Such language could add to ongoing tension between the police and members of San Francisco's African-American community, some of whom have called for Suhr to resign in the wake of the controversial police killing of a black man armed with a knife in December. The shooting remains under investigation.
    Lai, whom his attorney identified as Chinese, makes several references to "hock gwai," apparently a misspelled reference to the Cantonese "hak gwai," a derogatory phrase for African-Americans.
    In a series of texts sent in June he describes an incident involving a "bunch of hock gwais shooting each other."
    "Sprained my ankle over these barbarians," he says.
    One of the suspects "went to the hospital after he got shot lol," the officer texted.
    "Too bad none of them died," he added. "One less to worry about."
    The texts disparaged against blacks, Hispanics, Indians, gays and poor people.

    More than one officer involved

    In another exchange referring to African-Americans, Lai wrote: "They're like a pack (of) wild animals on the loose."
    The exchange happened during a night of civil unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray last year. Gray, an African-American, died after suffering head and neck injuries in the back of a police van.
    Lai used coded language to describe an encounter with a sergeant at the department's Taraval Station.
    "Passive aggressive 528," he wrote, using the numeric code for a fire call. The number is used to describe gay officers as "flames or flaming," according to the source.
    The names of most of the people trading texts with Lai are blacked out or listed as "unknown" in the documents that CNN obtained.
    At least two exchanges appear to involve one or more police officers. In one, Lai and a fellow texter discuss running into one another at a police station and dealing with a "528" sergeant. In another, a person texting Lai described being in an "on-duty" accident that occurred in 2015.
    "Some dumb Asian chick driving for Uber didn't look and changed lanes right into my car," the texter said.
    Three of four officers implicated in the texting scandal with Lai are no longer with the department, said Officer Albie Esparza, a police spokesman. A fourth officer is facing disciplinary charges, Esparza said.
    "We're going to be better served without them," Suhr said.

    Texts discovered by accident

    The San Francisco Police Department's first texting scandal occurred last year when a federal prosecutor filed court papers detailing racist and homophobic texts made by former Sgt. Ian Furminger, one of three officers convicted of stealing money and drugs from residents of low-rent Tenderloin hotels.
    The texts were made public in support of a motion to put Furminger in jail in advance of his then-impending prison sentence.
    They were discovered as part of a federal corruption probe into the officers. Fourteen officers, including a captain, were implicated in sending or receiving such texts. Suhr attempted to fire eight of those officers, but was barred from doing so after a judge determined he waited too long to initiate disciplinary proceedings. The city has appealed the judge's decision.
    Adachi, the public defender, whose office released hotel surveillance footage of Furminger and other officers' alleged crimes on YouTube, prompting the federal investigation, noted that text messages discovered in that case -- and in Lai's -- were discovered by accident.
    Adachi said it made him wonder what other police officers are texting that hasn't come to light because they haven't been accused of a crime.
    "What are the chances of two officers being arrested ... and there's racists texts on (their phones)?" he asked. "I don't know what the odds would be in Vegas."

    Singled-out officer 'extremely hurt'

    Yulanda Williams, an African-American sergeant who was singled out by name and called a racial slur in the first texting scandal, said she was "extremely hurt" by what happened.
    "It made me wonder what must I do as a black woman to prove that I'm worthy of wearing the same blue uniform" as her fellow officers, she said.
    Williams, president of a minority police officers' association called Officers for Justice, said she was concerned for others as well.
    "I was also concerned that it could hinder our ability to be able to hire officers of color when they see and hear of others being treated that way," she told CNN in a recent interview.
    Without revealing the contents of the texts, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced last month that a new round of racist and homophobic messages had been discovered as part of the sexual assault probe of Lai.
    The first texting scandal prompted a review of some 1,600 cases for evidence of biased policing by the 14 officers implicated, Gascon said. Ultimately, 13 cases were dismissed due to concerns about the officers.

    'A good old boys network'

    The current texting investigation stemming from Lai's case involves several other officers, including a lieutenant. It could result in hundreds of more cases being reviewed, Gascon said.
    Like Adachi, Gascon stressed the accidental nature of the discovery of the texts in both cases. He also accused the police department of being slow to address the problem in both instances.
    In an interview with CNN last week, Gascon said he has concluded two things about the police department he once ran.
    "No. 1: There's a substantial number of people within the organization that are racist," he said. "And No. 2: There's a culture that has allowed those people to thrive and survive and even promote within that environment."
    Suhr said he did not want to "get into it" with Gascon, whom he succeeded as chief, but he noted that "every one of these officers I've contended with were there when he was the chief of police."
    Gascon likened the leadership of the department's union to police in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s.
    "They would probably feel right at home," he said. "It's a good old boys network that does everything they can to protect the status quo."
    Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, did not return a call or email seeking comment.
    Gascon, who in addition to serving as the San Francisco police chief for more than a year, spent most of his career at the Los Angeles Police Department, which has seen its own share of scandal.
    Even after decades in law enforcement, Gascon said, he was stunned by the contents of the text messages he's read.
    "I never in a million years would have dreamt that those kind of conversations would go on between San Francisco police officers," he said.
    He said officers should not be allowed to engage in such talk, even in private.
    "I would say OK if you're a plumber, if you're a carpenter," he said. "But if you're somebody that actually gets to put people in jail or in worst-case conditions actually take somebody's life from them, and do so lawfully, you don't get to be a racist."
    Adachi, the public defender, said he was concerned that a perceived lack of accountability could lead officers to believe there are no consequences for misconduct in the department.

    Attorney: Don't read too much into texts

    But First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza said Lai's texts don't prove he was unworthy of the badge.
    "What matters is what he does while on the force. I am not interested in policing his private conversations with his friends," said Randazza, who was not directly involved in Lai's case.
    "If he shows bias in his work, then we have a problem. I am not comfortable with the concept of 'thought crime.' "
    Randazza said a probe into anyone's personal cell phone will likely reveal unsavory texts that would make them look bad if publicized.
    "Everybody who's sitting there cheering, 'Yeah, we got to expose a racist,' I want to see their text messages," he said.

    'R U READING THIS IA?'

    Lai sent some of his texts after the first scandal had made headlines. He discussed what investigators would be able to find with a search warrant and suggested that deleting an app could cover his tracks.
    At one point he made what appeared to be a joking reference to being the subject of an internal affairs investigation.
    "R U READING THIS IA?" he texted.
    Then, in August 2015, as investigators obtained search warrants in pursuit of the sexual assault investigation, Lai sent this message to an unknown recipient:
    "This is my drop phone," Lai wrote, borrowing a term drug dealers used to describe disposable phones for conducting illicit business.
    "Don't contact me or answer any calls/texts from my normal cell until further," the text said.