Who Will Be the Thought Police for the Police?


The San Francisco Police Department has two separate but related scandals on its hands, the first a genuine one involving allegations of serious corruption, the other involving what amount to thought crimes against modern notions of political correctness.  Nowhere in America are those notions more rigorously observed that in San Francisco, so it should come as no surprise that in some quarters the latter scandal is regarded as more serious than the former.

Last year, six SFPD officers were indicted in federal court for stealing from drug suspects.  One of the six, now-former Sergeant Ian Furminger, has been convicted and sentenced to 41 months in prison.  He has appealed his conviction and is out on bail pending the outcome of that appeal.  In opposing Furminger’s motion for bail, federal prosecutors disclosed text messages he had exchanged with coworkers.  Fourteen officers, none of whom are implicated in acts of corruption, now face being fired for having sent or received text messages indicating they harbor bias against this or that demographic group.  And the district attorney in San Francisco is conducting a review of thousands of cases, searching for evidence that the supposed bias revealed in the messages resulted in wrongful arrests and convictions.

There is no denying that the messages are crude and offensive, laden as they are with pejorative comments about blacks, Hispanics, and homosexuals.  But some questions occur, the first of which of course is, now what?  If investigators cannot prove that these officers acted on the perceived biases reflected in the text messages, on what grounds can the cops be removed from their jobs?  And if these officers are indeed fired, should every other member of the Police Department be forced to submit his text messages for evaluation by the Bias Inspectors?

And what then?  Suppose some pair of officers exchanged texts while off-duty and watching the recent events in Baltimore.  If one of them referred to the rioters with the now-prohibited term “thugs,” should he be lose his job?  And if the recipient of such a text failed to upbraid his colleague for using for so offensive a term, and to remind him that those rioters were merely engaging in constitutionally protected protests against injustice, should he be fired as well?  Where would it end?

Some years ago I was working a narcotics enforcement detail in one of the grittier sections of Los Angeles.  In that part of town was a public housing project, within and around which we devoted much of our efforts.  But such was the geography of the area, and such was the sophistication of the drug operation being conducted, that we were frustrated in our efforts to rid the neighborhood of the people who caused so much misery for the many decent people living nearby.  Lookouts were posted blocks away to alert the dealers of our approach, and though we dressed in grubby clothes and drove beat-up unmarked cars, all of our faces and all of our cars were well known among the drug dealers.  No sooner did we make the turn from the nearby major street than the whistles began, accompanied by shouts of “one-time” and “five-oh.”  And by the time we made it into the housing project, the dealers had scattered like so many roaches when the lights come on in a dirty kitchen.