Does SFPD racist texting scandal help us understand NYPD’s Liang-Gurley case?


Happy Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (the official name signed into law, as per President George H.W. Bush‘s pen), or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, or AANHPI Month.

By whatever name you choose, it’s still May–our time to revel in our Asian-ness and help people understand the complexities of our big tent sensibility from New York to Honolulu.

We’re not the model minority, and we’re not “seen one, seen them all.”

Unless, of course, you’re a cop.

And then blue is much more dominant in the color scheme than we all think.

Let’s just hope you didn’t get a “Happy APA Month” text greeting from former San Francisco Police Officer Jason Lai.

JasonLaiSFPD.jpgIf you did, it was likely filled with some pretty spicy language.

Last week, CNN reported on the release of dozens of text messages by Lai in 2014 and 2015 that revealed a politically incorrect view of people’s ethnicity.

South Asian Indians?

Lai texted (misspelling included): “Indian ppl are disgusting.”


“I hate that beaner,” boasted Lai in another text about a Latino person.

Lai called African Americans “nigs” in a text about basketball player LeBron James.

He even used the words “hak gwai,” an insulting Cantonese phrase for African Americans. Lai called one incident a “bunch of hock gwais shooting each other.”

And there’s more where that came from, discovered as part of a police department sex probe against Lai last year that resulted in no charges.

Since then, he’s been charged on misdemeanor counts for accessing DMV information for non-official reasons, with an arraignment scheduled for May.

Don Nobles, Lai’s attorney, told CNN that the texts were “not reflective” of his client, and that they were transmitted from his personal phone to his friends on the force, but not necessarily in the act of policing.

When I first heard of the whole thing, I was colorblind to Lai’s race. It was also the second instance of inappropriate texting at SFPD since 2014. That one involved homophobic remarks.

But when I saw the key figure in this go-round was an Asian American, (there’s another Asian American involved as well, retired Lt. Curtis Liu), I asked the man who released the texts to the media, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, his reaction.

Did it strike him as odd to read such things from another Asian American?

“No,” Adachi told me. “I think that SFPD has a problem in terms of a culture that allows racism to thrive. When you have sergeants and lieutenants involved in this racist texts scandal, it tells us that it is much deeper than just street officers who share these attitudes and engage in racial profiling. Minority officers like Lai are not immune from racism. Clearly, Lai expressed his racist beliefs and feelings to his fellow officers and friends, and did so in a very casual and comfortable manner. What was chilling is that you can see how his racist beliefs affected his police work and his use of the power that was entrusted to him. “

Adachi, a Japanese American, indicated there’s something in cop culture that trumps all ethnic loyalty or sense of solidarity.

“Being an Asian American, it troubles me greatly when I see an Asian officer who harbors these kinds of racist attitudes,” Adachi said. “What does it say about how Asians view Blacks or Latinos? That’s why it is important for Asians to come forward and say they denounce Officer Lai’s texts. I think most Asians do not, although it’s important to acknowledge that we all have unconscious biases that affect the way we see others based on race.”

Denouncing Lai, the former Asian American cop, should be easy.

But another case involving policing and race, it sure hasn’t been easy to denounce former NYPD officer Peter Liang. Many have instead rallied to his support.


The Liang case involving the stairwell shooting of Akai Gurley continues to divide the community, Asian vs. Asian, as well as Asian vs. everyone else.

The recent sentencing hearing that resulted in no prison time for Liang has only aggravated the situation.

Liang is still seen as a greenhorn Asian American cop who is being scapegoated.

Or he’s seen as symbolic of a racist police force whose careless actions result in a tragedy like the Gurley shooting death in New York.

In San Francisco, it helps that Lai isn’t a rookie. I have seen no public outcry for leniency in the texting case.

Perhaps too, it’s because the texts reveal an underlying attitude in cop culture that can alter one’s personal sense of values. It seems to create a real “us vs. them” mentality that trumps ethnic loyalties or even morality.

If you are an east coaster or a Peter Liang supporter who doesn’t get why people don’t run to support a fellow Asian American in San Francisco, the texts show how Officer Lai of the SFPD saw the world.

Adachi insists that has to affect how you police. He believes it could have an impact on many cases his office is defending against the SFPD. The first texting scandal in 2014 has already prompted a review of 1,600 cases for police bias.

“Racism is ingrained in police culture,” Adachi told me. “The blue wall of silence means that officers don’t report other officers who are racist or who express racist beliefs. There were 14 officers involved in the first texting scandal, and now four more. The question that should be asked is why none of the officers came forward when they became aware of the racist texts. It’s because they are trained not to tell on each other, even when misconduct occurs. That needs to change, because if they expect the public to cooperate against criminal conduct, the police need to as well.”

Since Adachi leaked the Lai texts last week, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr released even more texts and said he’s ordered anti-harassment classes for his force next month.

The Chief is getting support from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, but that might not be enough.

The texting scandal comes on top of two recent police shootings of an African American and a Latino. A third case last March involves a federal grand jury’s decision that the police did not use excessive force when it gunned down Alex Nieto, 27. Nieto allegedly pointed a stun gun at officers.

It all has fueled the rage of San Franciscans who see police misconduct and gentrification, whic h has displaced working class people, as commingled.

Sound familiar New Yorkers?

But in San Francisco, the protest has spawned a hunger strike that continues into its 11th day.

The Frisco Five includes Asian American rapper, Equipto (Ilych Sato), who last October criticized Mayor Ed Lee for his policies saying that Lee was a “disgrace” to Asian people and “had no heart.”

The Five say they won’t eat until Suhr steps down.

It’s all a bit of a mess, and it’s happening on Mayor Lee’s watch.

Ineffective Asian American leadership, plus allegedly racist Asian American cops.

Look at the positive side. We’re busting up that model minority myth!

And just in time for heritage month, or whatever you want to call it.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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