SAN FRANCISCO – The leak of several offensive internal police videos has ignited a political firestorm in this liberal city, pitting rank-and-file officers against City Hall in what some are calling the biggest crisis of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s two years in office.
Eighteen police officers from a precinct in a largely black district were suspended last week after the release of behind-the-scenes videos that mock blacks and Asians and treat women as sex objects. An additional 12 officers could also be suspended.
Officers say the videos were made as a spoof to boost morale in a high-crime neighborhood, but Newsom has called them racist and sexist.
The recent taped police skits have struck a particularly sensitive nerve in a city celebrated for its diversity, where the posts of district attorney, police chief and fire chief are all held by women. Newsom spent much of last week doing damage control, visiting with religious leaders and attending late-night meetings in the department’s Bayview district, where the videos were made.
Bayview residents reacted angrily to the videos. Newsom has promised widespread department reforms.
On Friday, after learning that the insensitive videos had been made public, Newsom renewed his criticism of officers who, he says, “just fail to get it.”
The newest tapes include images of a black police officer eating from a dog bowl. Previous tapes depicted a police car running over a homeless black woman, an officer dressed as a transgender person and a high-ranking captain flicking his tongue suggestively at the camera.
The videos first surfaced on an Internet Web site and then were released by city officials. They have since been featured on news broadcasts nationwide.
“This is terrible, this is serious stuff,” Newsom said after addressing a group of architects downtown.
“A small group of officers made a video on city time when they should have been out fighting crime,” Newsom said. “They used city resources to make a parody they insist is benign, but which at worst is racist and sexist and outrageously offensive to this community.”
But police officers insist the mayor has overreacted. They say the videos were made in-house by consenting officers of various races, both men and women. On Friday, the highest-ranking officer facing suspension in connection with the videos held a news conference near police headquarters.
Capt. Rick Bruce accused Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong of smearing his name and demanded a public apology for releasing the tapes to the public without informing him. Bruce said his image was used in the tapes without his knowledge.
Gary Delagnes, president of the 2,200-member San Francisco Police Officers Association, said the videos should never have been made. “It’s an embarrassment to the department and the officers involved,” he said. “We’re wrong, and we have to take our medicine.”
But Delagnes said that the videos were made by officers in stressful jobs who wanted to blow off steam.
“The precinct where they work is the Iraq of the city of San Francisco,” he said. “They are outgunned and outmanned, and just a year ago one of their numbers was murdered.
“And so a bunch of officers, white, black, Asian, women and gay, got together and made a video they thought was going to be shown at their captain’s retirement dinner. It was their way of dealing with the futility of their jobs.”