Silicon Valley NAACP calls on deputy sheriffs' union to release racist texts

2018-02-13 | San Jose Mercury News

Feb. 13--SAN JOSE -- The race for Santa Clara County sheriff took an acrimonious turn Monday as the Silicon Valley NAACP, which supports Sheriff Laurie Smith's re-election, called on the union that represents sheriff's deputies and is backing one of her opponents to release hundreds of racist texts exchanged by a group of deputies and jail guards -- including, the group claimed, the union's president.

But there is no evidence that union president Don Morrissey sent a text message containing a racist slur against Vietnamese people, as the news release by NAACP chapter president Rev. Jethroe Moore contends. Morrissey was actually cleared by an independent investigator of sending racist texts, though he did admit to chiming in -- without using any racist language -- to two strings of messages riddled with racist slurs against Vietnamese and African-Americans.

The accusation in the NAACP news release might be a distinction without a difference to voters, who may be disgusted that Morrissey didn't stop the guards and a fellow sergeant from sharing bigoted messages both on the job and off duty. Morrissey has acknowledged he did not stop the ring but contends the demotion was unduly harsh.

Morrissey was stripped of his sergeant's stripes by the sheriff for failing to report that jail guards he worked with were exchanging vile, racist texts, including images of swastikas and Ku Klux Klan members in pointy white hoods. He was forced to take a 15 percent pay cut and will ultimately retire with a smaller pension for violating his duty to report misconduct that could discredit the Sheriff's Office -- unless he wins in arbitration. The arbitrator's decision on whether Morrissey will remain a deputy or be restored to the rank of sergeant -- with back pay -- is expected any day now.

Moore's mistake prompted the Deputy Sheriffs' Association on Monday to label the allegation that Morrissey sent racist texts "libelous" and to send a cease-and-desist letter to the NAACP.

The DSA also emailed its membership Monday, claiming that "Morrissey spoke with multiple people warning them to stop their offensive behavior, after which he found himself the target of ridicule and bullying." Yet Morrissey never raised that as a defense in the face of his demotion, according to the deposition he gave in a lawsuit the union filed against the county and the sheriff. Instead, he said he didn't read most of the messages, partly because he was coping with a family problem and also because many were sent after he got off work.

As for releasing the texts, as called for by the NAACP, a union official said the group does not have them. Only the sheriff does, but she is barred from releasing them because they are considered evidence in a personnel matter.

The tiff between the NAACP and the DSA occurred shortly before a debate Monday night between sheriff's candidates. Smith is running for her sixth term. She is opposed by retired undersheriff John Hirokawa, whom the union supports. Deputy Joe La Jeunesse also is running.

The racist texts in Morrissey's case surfaced in 2015 when the Sheriff's Office -- acting on a search warrant -- seized the cellphone of an officer suspected of associating with a known member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. When the Mercury News exposed the texts, it touched off a wave of outrage and horror in the community, which was already reeling from the death of a mentally ill inmate at the hands of three jail guards who were ultimately convicted of murder.

Before disciplining Morrissey, Smith fired one of the most prolific texters in the ring, Lance Scimeca, president of the correctional officers union. It appears that Morrissey and Scimeca spent time together outside of work, judging from a photo of them socializing at a San Diego-area brewery in 2015, the same year the texts were exchanged.

According to court documents, this was the second time Smith demoted Morrissey. About five years ago, she knocked him down a notch from lieutenant to sergeant after investigators concluded he had spent more than an hour a day looking at pornography on a work computer and had tried to persuade an employee to conceal the evidence.