San Francisco Police Officer Jason Lai resigned from the force a few weeks ago, following a six-year career, when a series of incriminating text messages surfaced from 2014-2015 on his personal phone. The dozen or so messages targeted Black, Mexican, Indian and LGBT people in his derogatory rants to anonymous officers and friends. President Obama, Lebron James and his colleague Sgt. Yulanda Williams all found themselves in the firing line.
The inflammatory messages were found accidentally during an investigation into a sexual assault allegation made against him last year, which was thrown out due to insufficient evidence. The San Francisco Police Department downplays the case as an isolated incident, despite their problematic relationship with the Black community, following cases of unlawful police shootings and brutality. This is the second racist text scandal to plague the SFPD in the space of a year, the first involved Sgt. Ian Furminger and multiple other officers.
Officer Lai’s text exchanges happened not long after Freddie Gray’s tragic murder in Baltimore Police custody, in which he used the N-word, referred to minority residents as “wild animals” and called Indian people “disgusting,” among other racial slurs. The Chinese officer also used coded language to demean gay officers on the force. His lawyer, Don Nobles, defends him by claiming that “there is no evidence he carried out any of those sentiments as an officer” and that the comments are “not reflective of who he is.” However, prior to being exposed, Lai was exhibiting guilty behavior and looking for ways to delete the conversations.
The messages were publicly broadcast by CNN, who interviewed targeted officer Sgt. Yulanda Williams. She was understandably “extremely hurt” to hear her colleague’s comments and worries that the scandal will deter future officers of color from joining the force. “It made me wonder what must I do as a Black woman to prove that I’m worthy of wearing the same blue uniform.” Chief Greg Suhr claims to have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination, commenting, “when somebody demonstrates that they have this reprehensible character trait, we need to cut them from the body.”
The inquiry into the messages could spark hundreds of other officer conduct reviews, in light of criticisms that the SFPD are taking too long to address the systemic problem. Let’s hope that this actually happens, so that future public servants are more closely vetted.