SAN FRANCISCO Police officers like to point out that their risky, high-stress profession produces a culture outsiders just can’t understand.
Indeed, plenty of people were left scratching their heads on Dec. 8 as 24 officers were suspended without pay for participating in videos that used splashes of ethnic humor and sex to parody life on the force.
Intended as a private spoof, the tapes didn’t play as well once the mayor and police chief made them public, blasting the vignettes as racist, sexist and homophobic.
“I’m sorry they did it, and I’m sure they are very sorry they did it,” said Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
Police Chief Heather Fong moved swiftly to discipline the officers involved in an incident she called “egregious, shameful and despicable.” The department did not release the names or ranks of the officers, part of a group of 20 from the same station who were under investigation for using their patrol cars and other official equipment in the videos.
The skits featured uniformed and plain clothes officers making fun of Asians, blacks, women and members of the gay and transgender communities, Mayor Gavin Newsom said. He was particularly offended by a scene showing a white officer in a patrol car running over a black homeless woman.
“It is shameful, it is offensive, it is sexist, it is homophobic and it is racist,” said Newsom, who directed two city commissions to join the police department in its investigation. The matter comes almost three years after a former chief was indicted and later cleared in an alleged cover-up after off-duty officers wrestled with men over a bag of Mexican food.
Some of the officers said the mayor and police chief have mishandled the controversy by releasing the videos for examination by the media.
Officer Andrew Cohen, 39, who produced the videos, said he was suspended for posting inappropriate and unauthorized pictures about the department on the Internet.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Cohen told The Associated Press. “I’ve never been in trouble before.”
The video spoofs were shot more than a year, but came to the department’s attention three weeks ago after Cohen showed some clips to a member of the command staff, saying he planned to show them at the station’s Christmas party, according to Delagnes.
Cohen was reportedly told “to get rid of them” and then put them up on his Web site, Inside the SFPD.
All the officers involved, including a captain, worked at the Bayview Station in the city’s roughest section, an industrial area with a large minority population and high crime rate.
Delagnes called the videos “extremely stupid and immature,” but said the skits reflected “the gallows humor of police work” and not the dedication or cultural views of the officers involved. He noted that the actors in the parodies included female, black and Hispanic officers.
“These were meant as comic relief, parodies of police work,” Delagnes said. “The fact that the eyes of others have seen these skits is a result of deception and manipulation by a single individual,” he said, referring to Cohen.
Cohen’s lawyer and longtime friend, Daniel Horowitz, said his client was slandered by officials who drew attention to the matter and took the videos out of context. He said Cohen had permission from the chief to produce videos while on the job “without any content review.”
Capt. Rick Bruce, who formerly led the Bayview station but is currently on leave awaiting retirement, is among those under investigation.
Bruce appeared in a video called “The Ladies Man,” which spoofed the television show “Charlie’s Angels.” Three gun-toting police women in T-shirts and blue jeans report to Bruce, who sits behind his desk suggestively licking his lips.
Through the rest of the clip, a street person, an apparent transvestite and several others tongue their lips in a similar manner and say, “Ohhh, captain.”
Several Bayview residents shopping at a grocery store near the police station were unamused.
“I don’t know what’s so funny about it,” said Fale Idencio, 48. “They need counseling. They have to learn they can’t do that to people.”
Idencio said his 19-year-old nephew was shot and killed about four months ago in the neighborhood and it took police 25 minutes to show up.
“When they get a call anywhere around this area they’re slow. They’ll be here, but they’re always a few minutes late,” he said.
One of the videos, titled “A day in the life of Hamster and Big Dummy,” portrayed a pair of lazy officers ignoring several dispatches as they read the newspaper, nap in their cruiser and practice martial arts.
When gunshots are reported, they race off with their lights flashing and siren wailing only to show up at a massage parlor the driver had spotted in a magazine ad.
A similar flap arose in June over the revelation that the San Francisco 49ers had produced a training video that included racist jokes, lesbian soft-porn and topless blondes.
The football team’s publicity director, Kirk Reynolds, resigned after the 15-minute film came to light. Reynolds said he made the tape to coach players on handling the news media in a diverse city and that it was never meant for public viewing.
The department last drew national attention after former Chief Earl Sanders and several top ranking officers were accused by a grand jury in February 2003 of covering up a late-night brawl between two off-duty officers and two men who refused to hand over a bag of steak fajitas.
They were later cleared of conspiracy charges. Sanders retired in September 2003.