The South Bay’s largest police agency is just a degree removed from a suspected assassination plot against author-activist Shaun King, one of the nation’s most prominent voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Billy Dishman—who retired from the San Jose Police Department in 2006 before going on to lead Tracy PD’s Internal Affairs Unit—was named as one of the ex-cops being investigated by the FBI for making online death threats against King. Though Dishman left SJPD long ago, he’s part of a closed Facebook group of current and retired San Jose cops that’s reportedly very similar to the one that became part of the FBI probe this week.
Under the pseudonym Charlie Paulsen on Medium, the partner of an active San Jose PD officer (whose identity has been independently confirmed by San Jose Inside) cites troubling comments and memes by members of a Facebook group called 10-7ODSJ—a name that refers to police scanner code for “off duty.”
Much of the content cited on Medium disparages Black Lives Matter and—of particular concern for a department being sued for alleged Islamophobia—Muslims.
A post by retired SJPD policeman William Rockmiller links to an article about a woman whose hijab was yanked off by a Los Angeles cop.
The link prompted mocking responses from fellow 10-7ODSJ members, including a quip about repurposing religious head coverings into nooses.
Active SJPD traffic cop Mark Pimentel—one of the officers who policed protests outside City Hall in recent weeks—chimed in with a variation on the joke.
“Hell,” he wrote, “I would have pulled it over her face.”
Another response comes from retired officer Michael Nagel, who shared a meme of a “Sharia Barbie” with a black eye, hijab, Quran, and, it states, “stoning accessories available for additional purchase.”
“It is obvious what these officers think about Muslims and we must question how these cops applied their racist views while in uniform,” the Medium author notes. “For example, how many times has Officer Pimentel pulled over a woman with a hijab for ‘speeding’ or a ‘broken taillight?’”
Meanwhile, Steve Wilson, who retired from SJPD last year, has been popping off about the people protesting George Floyd’s killing, calling them in various posts “animals” and likening them to Antifa and “the same trash” who turn out for Cinco de Mayo.
Some of the social media posts go back several years, but the blogger said they remain relevant because of the positions the involved officers hold to this day.
For example, a 2015 update from Sgt. Chris Sciba “racially profiles and stereotypes all Muslims as being terrorists,” the Medium author wrote.
“The hypocrisy in this is that Sgt. Sciba is currently assigned to the Training Unit, where he teaches about race-bias policing to academy students, officers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains,” the blog goes on to state. “Does SJPD feel that this post is acceptable and does not go against their policies of enforcing a workplace free of hostility and discrimination? Obviously, that they hired Sciba to teach on the very subject of race-bias policing, we have to ask if SJPD shares the same view that Sciba has on Muslims, and allows such racist stereotypes to exist. After all, not even the lieutenants or captains told Sciba that his post is inappropriate. How can we know that Sciba hasn’t infused his anti-Muslim sentiments into the classes he teaches? How do we know that officers who took his class and see his post aren’t saying, ‘Well if Sgt. Sciba is okay with calling all Muslims terrorists, it must be okay with the work policy, right?’”
More recently, in May 2019, Sgt. Fabrice Bellini posted an image of a commemorative coin titled “Stinkin’ Lincoln: To Hell and Back Every Night.” The author says the satirical token refers to “District Lincoln” in San Jose, a beat comprising mostly Vietnamese and Latino residents as well as large concentrations of homeless encampments.
“Stinkin’ Lincoln is a name applied to these people by SJPD, and is accompanied by feelings of disdain when an officer is assigned to work in this district, ‘the trash’ of San Jose,” the author remarks. “The coin was so popular that officers asked for coins for their entire team, a request Bellini enthusiastically said he can fulfill. That officers openly celebrate their disgust about these minority and marginalized groups through a coin, we should question the kind of policing that occurs in this district they call ‘hell.’”
The Medium article argues that the social media posts call into question the sincerity of SJPD and union leaders who say they want to “root out racist cops.”
“Even more disturbing than the posts itself is the lack of reporting among the police officers,” the author writes. “Breaking the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’ for fears of retaliation are legitimate feelings based on a history of whistleblowers at SJPD being ostracized. The SJPD must encourage and allow a work environment where officers can report colleagues who violate policies and laws without facing retaliation. This must especially be the case when officers and lower-ranked employees are reporting higher-ranked colleagues, as SJPD is a system built on seniority. The retaliation that police face is especially pernicious as it manifests as over-aggressive discipline for minor policy offenses, denials of transfer to a special unit or not promoting a qualified officer. Truly establishing protection for whistleblowers would raise ethical standards and hold the entire department to a standard the community expects and deserves.”
When reached shortly after the Medium post went live this evening, SJPD spokesman Sgt. Enrique Garcia said the agency is looking into the posts.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” he wrote in an email. “We will definitely look into these incidents. San Jose Police Department members are responsible for, and required to adhere to the policies and procedures of the department. This includes conduct, either on or off duty, which would adversely reflect upon the department.”
A couple hours later, in response to San Jose Inside’s reporting, Mayor Sam Liccardo condemned the alleged comments and called for swift action. Chief Eddie Garcia followed up right after to confirm that he already launched an investigation into the matter.
“I will be recommending termination,” he said in a text. “This is unacceptable.”
Later, through a spokesman, Chief Garcia added: “I have previously responded with discipline up to termination after an investigation into off duty online activity that runs counter to our standards of conduct. While I have no control over what former employees post online, I can voice my outrage after hearing about these comments made online. Any current employee involved with bigoted activity online will promptly be investigated and held accountable to the fullest extent in my power. We have no place for this.”
In recent years, researchers and journalists have devoted greater attention to what law enforcement officials post to social media because of concerns about how their personal biases might affect their on-the-job behaviors.
The Plain View Project, founded in 2016 by a group of attorneys to track online posts by police, notes that the goal of monitoring online comments is not to suppress free speech but to hold authorities accountable for it.
“To be clear, our concern is not whether these posts and comments are protected by the First Amendment,” the landing page of Plain View’s website explains. “Rather, we believe that because fairness, equal treatment, and integrity are essential to the legitimacy of policing, these posts and comments should be part of a national dialogue about police.”
In 2019, a yearlong investigation by Reveal, an affiliate of the Bay Area-based nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, found that Islamophobia, among other extremist ideologies, was rampant among online law enforcement groups.
Reporters who worked on the project contacted 150 police departments about the findings. Some of those agencies launched immediate investigations. One fired an officer. However, the report states, most “were unbothered by their officers’ social media activity. Some police leaders were angry that we even asked them about it.”
A few years ago, San Jose PD had to publicly grapple with social media remarks made by one of its veteran patrolmen. In 2016, Officer Phillip White prompted fierce public backlash over a Twitter rant that began by criticizing Black Lives Matter and devolved into thinly cloaked threats of violence.
Chief Garcia roundly denounced the statements and placed White on desk duty. But attorneys from the local police union made sure the top brass couldn’t fire the officer, however much they wanted to. White ultimately won his job back through arbitration.
Mayor Liccardo said he hopes to avoid that outcome this time around, and that these kinds of situations are exactly why he hopes the city will adopt the nine-point accountability plan he unveiled earlier this week.
“Our chief fired an officer for tweeting a similar statement in 2016, but an unaccountable arbitrator—immune from public or court review—reversed the termination, and forced the department to reinstate the officer,” he said. “For that reason, as I articulated in my police reform proposal this week, I will push for changes to a disciplinary process that allows unaccountable arbitrators to reverse termination decisions of the chief, and I will further push for independent investigation of all racially discriminatory conduct. This is precisely why these reforms are so important.”
This article has been updated to include comments from the mayor and police chief.