SJPD’s Condemnation of Bigoted FB Posts Gives New Resonance to 2018 Islamophobia Lawsuit

They called him a “suicide bomber, “Bin Laden,” a member of ISIS. They mocked his accent and joked about him plotting to crash a plane into the White House.

During firearm trainings, the range master facetiously goaded him to “shoot the infidels.”

But the breaking point for SJPD Officer Nabil Haidar, after a decade-and-a-half of alleged harassment, came on Nov. 10, 2017.

At a briefing with about 70 colleagues and 15 upper-command staff, Capt. Johnson Fong had just commended all ex-military members in the room in honor of Veterans Day when, in Haidar’s telling, Sgt. Robert LaBarbera tried to lighten the mood. “Captain you forgot to mention Nabil,” the briefing sergeant allegedly said. “He is an ISIS veteran.”

The room erupted in laughter. It was the same tired joke—only this time in front of a sizable audience and a good share of the top brass.

Haidar—a Lebanese immigrant with relatives killed in his homeland’s civil war—says he confronted LaBarbera after the meeting, warning how his comments posed a liability. “You’re nobody, pal,” the sergeant allegedly said. “You’re not a protected class.”

When Deputy Chief Anthony Mata heard what happened, he, too, reportedly found it hilarious. At a table across from Haidar and where several of his colleagues were eating lunch, he even doubled down on the jape.

Drawn by the laughter, Haidar says Sgt. Ronnie Lopez joined the group and asked what everyone was cracking up about. Upon hearing about LaBarbera’s quip, according to Haidar, Lopez piled on. In an exaggerated imitation of a Middle Eastern accent, he allegedly scoffed: “Yeah, I sleep with your wife or a kill your wife.”

Though SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia launched an Internal Affairs investigation into the matter, Haidar says it resulted in no closure, no apology. A letter about the conclusion of the case wasn’t produced until nearly a year-and-a-half later.

Worse still, he says, the harassment continued.

Double Standard

Nabil Haidar reviews his 2018 complaint in his attorney's Oakland office. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

When Haidar came forward with the allegations in 2017, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association (POA) defended the accused officers. When he sued SJPD in 2018 for Islamophobic harassment, Chief Garcia denied claims of systemic discrimination.

Recent events, however, give the case new resonance.

On June 26, in response to an anonymous whistleblower and San Jose Inside’s reporting exposing bigoted, anti-Muslim comments SJPD cops made on Facebook, Garcia roundly condemned the statements and announced their immediate suspension. “Any current employee involved with bigoted activity online will promptly be investigated and held accountable to the fullest extent in my power,” he vowed. “We have no place for this.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo echoed the chief’s outrage.

As did POA President Sgt. Paul Kelly, who denounced the “online ring of hate,” said he’d do nothing to defend officers charged by the department and declared “zero room in our department or our profession for racists, bigots or those [who] enable them.”

In an email to the union’s 1,000-plus members a day or so later, he added: “We must all self-reflect. We must all look in our souls and confront the demons of racism, bias and hate that permeates our society. The first step in our self-reflection is to admit we have a problem. For far too long, we have been afraid of admitting, confronting and doing something about racism, bias and hate within law enforcement. If you have these types of beliefs in your heart, fix it, address it, seek counseling, seek mentoring, seek training to understand bias and racism, talk to a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam, and if you can’t get that hate out of your heart, then I suggest you go to Chief Garcia and turn in your badge.”

Haidar says he’s thrilled to see SJPD proclaim zero tolerance for bigotry. He just wishes the department held the accused in his case to the same standard. “If my situation were handled decisively and Chief Garcia took swift action,” Haidar says, “then I don’t think those other officers would have felt comfortable making those comments on Facebook.”

Instead, Haidar says SJPD chose to minimize him claims by first ignoring them, then attacking his reputation (leaking a conduct-unbecoming-of-an-officer claim for which he was disciplined years ago) and, ultimately, fighting his lawsuit.

As Haidar recalls, Capt. Fong’s face turned bright red from laughing so hard at the ISIS joke. When Fong in 2017 interviewed for the top cop job at the San Jose State University Police Department, the hiring committee asked him about Haidar’s claims. The captain described the offending remarks as “a joke” that “everyone laughed about.”

Not everyone. Certainly not Haidar.

“The mayor, the head of the POA and the chief are all saying appropriate things right now,” his civil rights attorney, Randall Strauss, says from the sunlit conference room of his 16th floor Oakland office. “But Nabil was the victim of the exact same systemic racism years ago, and they laughed it off.”

Backlash

For months after Sgt. LaBarbera allegedly made Haidar the butt of an anti-Muslim joke, he says the harassment persisted.

One incident took place on Nov. 27, 2017, during a training module called “Procedural Justice and Police Legitimacy,” which focused on officers’ relationships with various ethnic groups. After class, Haidar says he found himself in an elevator with a fellow officer who made a comment apparently directed at him.

“We can’t say anything these days,” the other cop allegedly lamented. “We can’t say anything without anyone getting offended or being sensitive about it.”

In his lawsuit, Haidar describes how the discrimination became so “persistent and extreme” that he asked the department to exempt him from daily briefings, allowing him to go straight into the field. Even then, he says he couldn’t escape it.

On Jan. 15, 2018, while responding to an active burglary, Haidar says his body camera documented colleagues making yet another Islamophobic jab.

According to Haidar, Officer Thomas Barnard teased him by mimicking an Arabic prayer—saying “alalalalala”—and made explosion sounds to “pretend he was a suicide bomber blowing himself up.” He then allegedly asked Haidar if a knife affixed to his waist was a “f*cking Lebanese throat cutter.”

Another officer who witnessed the exchange reportedly motioned toward Haidar’s body camera, signaling that they were being recorded. Unfazed, Barnard allegedly moved toward the camera, repeated the knife comment and flipped off the wearer.

Off camera, he allegedly continued prodding Haidar, suggesting he could teach recruits “jihadi sh*t” and how to “make pipe bombs.” 

Haidar filed an internal complaint about that, too. Nothing came of it except a sustained finding of conduct unbecoming of an officer. Despite SJPD policy requiring Internal Affairs to relay findings to complainants, Haidar says he didn’t even hear about the conclusion of the case until a year after it wrapped up.

Feeling defeated, Haidar asked SJPD to reassign him as a recruiter—a position that came with a huge pay cut, but at least afforded some distance from the harassment.

No Laughing Matter 

Chief Garcia’s newly articulated hardline stance against racism within the ranks has given Haidar renewed hope for the profession he joined in 1996 with a passion to serve.

If that’s the standard set by the city’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, he says he’d like the department to revisit his 2017 Internal Affairs complaint, which resulted in no meaningful or apparent accountability.

The investigating officer, Sgt. John Hutchins, interviewed just two people (Paul Cook and Rob Imobersteg, both white lieutenants) about the briefing-room incident despite their being scores of other witnesses.

Rather than pulling Sgt. LaBarbera from the field, as Garcia did with officers involved in the “online ring of hate,” the department would go on to grant him a highly desirable, overtime-lucrative transfer to the Mineta San Jose International Airport.

“I want to ask the POA president, who says to officers in that Facebook group, on that platform that ‘you’ll have due process,’ where was mine?” Haidar says. “I never had a chance to sit and tell my story. He was not there to represent me, the victim, in my case.”

In fact, Haidar adds, Sgt. Kelly personally represented Deputy Chief Mata and Sgt. LaBarbera, sitting in on Internal Affairs interviews with them. (As an aside, the union representing officers as high-ranking as a deputy chief raises serious concerns about potential conflicts of interest).

“The POA defended them, protected them,” Haidar says. “I never got called in by the POA, I never heard them say they would protect me.”

The POA has yet to respond to San Jose Inside’s requests for comment. Officials from SJPD declined to discuss Haidar’s case because of the ongoing litigation. Mayor Liccardo demurred for the same reason, directing San Jose Inside’s queries to City Attorney Rick Doyle (who has previously denied the merits of Haidar’s claims).

“The complaints made by Officer Haidar were fully investigated by the department,” Doyle wrote in an email Tuesday. “Penal Code Section 832.7 precludes us from releasing investigations and discipline. Please note, however, that the department is in the process of investigating the recent information related to the social media site and posts.”

But there’s nothing anyone at the city could say about the lawsuit, he added.

“The city does not comment on pending litigation for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to afford a fair process for all involved,” Doyle wrote. “Any body cam footage is currently subject to a protective order in state court.”

Haidar says he looks forward to the evidence coming to light. And though Sgt. Kelly hasn’t spoken publicly about his claims since shrugging them off two years ago, Haidar says he hopes the union leader reflects on them in light of the national reckoning over systemic bias in policing.

“The POA president said, in his letter to members about racist and offensive social media posts, that ‘words cannot express my disappointment and the extreme sadness I feel right now,’” Haidar says. “He says, ‘as heavy as my heart is, there are some truths that we must acknowledge’ about this. Well, if that’s the way he feels and he’s a white person and this isn’t directed at him, then how does he think it felt for me?”

Or how it felt for the ones who didn’t laugh along with the jokes.

“There are no words to describe what it’s like as an officer to sit in that briefing room, to hear that comment after being attacked and dehumanized for years” Haidar says. “There are no words to describe the humiliation.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

21 Comments

  1. Mr. Doyle, found out how much Mr. Haidar wants and write him the check. However, please feel free to label and slander all not-of-color cops as bigoted, racist pieces of violent. knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, bullying filth just because they say stupid things while blowing off steam on Facebook.

    All men are created equal but some are just more equal than others so – Write the check; Fire the Facebook commenters, then complain when a neutral Arbitrator reinstates those officers who were fired because they were political scapegoats. Why not fire them, they’re just flies of “non-color” so just pull off their wings, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never mistreated anyone. What the hell, just put a “political correctness fund” into the police budget, write checks out of it based on accusations without investigations first, and save time.

    Is this bias? I know one cop who stopped someone for going 20 mph over the speed limit, then contacted the driver and said, “Sir, I stopped you for going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were (victim class race name redacted). Have a nice day”, then let him go without a citation. Was that wrong?

    There are no words to describe how it feels to be suspected of being a “profile stopper” every time you pull someone over who “doesn’t look like you”.

    • How about we expect cops to not act racist? It is not that hard and something we should expect from people paid to protect and serve people of all ethnicities and religions.

      As for Mr. Haidar, he should expect to be able to go to work without being mocked for his ethnicity. It is basic common sense and decency.

      It is an at will employment state. Fire them all, they are in the wrong line of work.

    • “Mr. Doyle, found out how much Mr. Haidar wants and write him the check. However, please feel free to label and slander all not-of-color cops as bigoted, racist pieces of violent. knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, bullying filth just because they say stupid things while blowing off steam on Facebook.”

      Seriously, dude? We expect better of our officers. If their means of “blowing off steam” involves clandestinely resorting to racist depictions of their fellow citizens, then they probably shouldn’t be put in any position of authority over their fellow citizens. Plenty of people blow off steam without resorting to secret Facebook groups for bigoted memes. Go to the gun range, pet a cat, take a dang ceramics class like respectable people. Plenty of law enforcement officers do this because plenty of law enforcement officers are decent people. Defending the officers who took part in that group, however, definitely give the opposite impression. It makes it seems as if law enforcement officers only see themselves as beholden to themselves and not their fellow citizens, which obviously shouldn’t be the case. Ideally, law enforcement operates with the consent of those they serve, which means even the appearance of impropriety should be avoided. Law enforcement aren’t soldiers nor are they good ol’ boys in the locker room of a game. You are professional public servants, same as social workers and teachers, who would be in similar trouble if it was found they were taking part in such shameful behavior. So instead of feeling attacked and resorting to self-pity, try getting your house in order.

        • Why should they not be entitled to have the assistance of the police? People pay taxes for his the service, they don’t pay taxes to me racially abused.

      • If you never mistreat anyone, who cares what you say on Facebook, or anywhere else? I’ve had racial slurs directed at me as well as all manner of profanity and even death threats. As long as the person saying these things behaves themselves and doesn’t get out of hand and force me to defend myself, I don’t care what verbal nonsense they spew. Let them vent.

        I can find more doctors who have committed malpractice, and more bad attorneys who have ripped off clients, than you can find bad cops; And doctors and attorneys don’t wear body cameras or have their work reviewed by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. And how do you know Mr. Haidar hasn’t engaged in his share of ethnic directed verbal venting or odd humor?

        As well, sometimes cultural differences can prompt someone to take or give offense where none was intended. For example,if someone was born into a cultures or a belief system, where women aren’t always treated as equals, it might not seem inappropriate to tell a female victim of domestic violence, who had just been slapped around by her husband, “You know, this wouldn’t happen if you just learned to keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told”. By American policing standards, that would be very inappropriate but in some other cultures it would be considered good advice. Of course, this is just a hypothetical example.

        Sometimes American humor, particularly sarcasm, can be misinterpreted and cause offense where none was intended.In the police culture, the type of humor described that so offended Mr. Haidar, is more a form of acceptance and respect (Why else would you feel comfortable joking around with someone unless you felt that they knew you well enough that they would not be offended by something that would certainly be offensive if said by someone else who didn’t know them as well and feel as comfortable with them). Such things are a difficult to explain but are certainly not meant to offend. It’s only when people stop talking to and joking around with you, that you should feel ostracized and offended.

  2. Dear Chief Garcia,

    Do you understand now what Ms Wadsworth has in store for you? You think this is the last “lived experience” narrative? Ha, you are naive. You are going to be eating one bite at a time, alive. The joy in San Jose of your public humiliation is palpable. Not that you don’t deserve it. The question is, are you going to go down like a coward or will you stand up for the people who put their lives on the line every day? This is the decisive point in your life, stand up for civilization and fight back this nihilistic power grab or continue to debase yourself on the ground begging for forgiveness. This is the moment of your life.

    All the best,

  3. I always liked Nabil Haidar. I worked with him for a short period as I was much senior than him and retired in 2004. My interactions with him left me with the impression that he had a huge heart, enjoyed his profession and wanted only what was best for his community. In our profession, there is nothing more honorable and sacred than to serve those who need us most.

    I also know all the other men named in this story. And I believe them to be good humans too.

    The culture at San Jose PD was to prepare us to handle the everyday crises of our citizens, and to prepare us for battle when the wolves came calling. Our job was to protect the flock. And our job was to risk our lives for our citizens when we received that dreaded call which required us to take action.

    To keep us strong, the training was harsh, much like a drill sergeant in the United States Marine Corp. it breaks us down, tests our inner strength and teaches us to win the fight. So we can live and go home to our families at the end of our shift.

    Nabir. I wish you well, my Brother. I am sorry that it didn’t work out for you. Win or lose, you will always be my Brother in Blue, because you earned it.

    I am Christian. And I will die a Christian. But like I told you at Regional Medical Center when you appeared with an injured prisoner, we serve the same God. We just call him a different name. I loved your sincere smile. You understood. And as I looked deep into your eyes, I could tell I was looking at a good soul.

    Stay Blessed my Brother. Be well. And live a long Life in service to others. For we are God’s children and servants. And nothing on Earth will change that.

    Insha’Allah

    • RE: “ The culture at San Jose PD was to prepare us to handle the everyday crises of our citizens, and to prepare us for battle when the wolves came calling. Our job was to protect the flock. And our job was to risk our lives for our citizens when we received that dreaded call which required us to take action.”. We stand behind SJPD officers, including Air 3 and canines, 100%. However, the POA President, Chief Garcia, and anyone who found the comments funny put this officer in danger and continually harassed him. The City of SJ might as well write him a check and move along. I have seen court documents and lawsuits where perpetrators of crimes were clearly in the wrong, but sued SJPD and won settlements. We were furious and wondered why SJPD didn’t fight those claims in court. Instead, the perps were paid. This case, to us, would be a slam dunk in any courtroom.

  4. POA Sgt. Kelly neglected to add a sentence to his admonitions to those who have experienced racism within SJPD. He said/wrote: As did POA President Sgt. Paul Kelly, who denounced the “online ring of hate,” said he’d do nothing to defend officers charged by the department and declared “zero room in our department or our profession for racists, bigots or those [who] enable them.”

    In an email to the union’s 1,000-plus members a day or so later, he added: “We must all self-reflect. We must all look in our souls and confront the demons of racism, bias and hate that permeates our society. The first step in our self-reflection is to admit we have a problem. For far too long, we have been afraid of admitting, confronting and doing something about racism, bias and hate within law enforcement. If you have these types of beliefs in your heart, fix it, address it, seek counseling, seek mentoring, seek training to understand bias and racism, talk to a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam, and if you can’t get that hate out of your heart, then I suggest you go to Chief Garcia and turn in your badge.” The one sentence Sgt. Kelly failed to include was, “If you have experienced racism and racial remarks said or written about you, particularly within SJPD, and we didn’t support your claim, SEEK OUTSIDE LEGAL ADVICE.”

  5. I want to commend The Fly for her revealing write up on Nabil’s unfortunate humiliating situations at SJPD. If the facts are true, he deserves a big pay check plus sincere apologies from all the officers involved. I have always respected police but my eyes are open!
    The rhetoric from Kelly, Garcia, Liccardo sounds canned. Enough is enough. The action of the top brass is watched by the officers. You guys are a day late and a dollar short in setting good examples! Eddie you let this go way too far! And we know Sam and the city hate lawsuits! And Kelly you have a reputation of backing and supporting “bad officers”. I agree this expose is really bad for all three of you!!! Lessons learned hopefully.

    Thanks again to The Fly. Definitely did a better job here than the liberal hack job you did on San Jose Action in 2017. Couldn’t wait to interview us, had to go with the misinformation from our opposition.

    • We, too, comment The Fly for this article.

      I have one question I’m anxious to get an answer: Was POA Sgt. Kelly a member of that private Facebook group?

  6. While Nabil’s claims are valid, and there’s no way to quantify the amount of harm it has caused him, he’s also no stranger to dishing out the same kind of treatment to others.

    Jenn Wadsworth, If you would like a first hand account, contact Minority Business Consortium CEO Walter Wilson. Wilson expressed that during an interaction with Haidar, roughly some 10+ years ago now, Haidar addressed him with a strong racial slur as Wilson watched some police activity from a distance.

    Supposedly, months before Haidar filed his lawsuit, he also allegedly used derogatory, racially charged language against a woman of color which was inadvertently recorded in some fashion and led to an internal complaint.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I hope that this discussion turns into one of accountability instead of finger pointing and deflection.

  7. Stevie, I totally agree with your last sentence “and I hope that this discussion turns into one of accountability instead of finger pointing and deflection.” I have the said it all the time, the oppressed can simultaneously be the oppressor. I personally known professional community members of minority groups who are oppressed and oppressors. This conversation of making all accountable independent of race, color, or religion is one we all need to have.

  8. I’ve never met POA President Paul Kelly and have no idea of the personal qualities that made him electable, but never have I witnessed a labor leader release a more insulting, unsupportable, and potentially destructive statement than he did in the wake of the 10-7OD controversy. His position within that organization is not that of spiritual leader, thus his call that all members must “self-reflect” reveals his delusional assumption that the membership accepts his blanket denunciation and looks to him for moral guidance. He references religious concepts (souls, demons, original sin) while acting in his capacity as the leader of a secular organization of professionals. Has he confused his podium for a pulpit? Is he ignorant of, or unconcerned with, the differing beliefs of other organizational members? Of course, it should come as no surprise that his message was delivered in religious tones, as his allegations are otherwise devoid of anything approaching substantive evidence. His reaction to the controversy was, from my seat, no less unwarranted or hysterically stupid than were the frenzied Covid-related actions of the toilet paper-hoarding brigade.

    Kelly’s assertion that law enforcement has done nothing about racism is ignorant, incorrect, and dangerously inflammatory. For five decades agencies have sought every avenue available to combat the real and imagined prejudices of police officers. From the best efforts of hiring board screeners of the late 1960s, to the intensive background investigations, polygraph and psychological testing adopted in the ‘70s, to the embrace of every brand of politically-correct indoctrination from the ’80s onward, law enforcement has demonstrated a persistent intolerance to discriminatory conduct of any kind. As a taxpayer and concerned citizen, I resent Kelly’s insinuation that taxpayers have failed to fund meaningful reform, his bald accusation that this powerful arm of civic government has been allowed to run roughshod over the rights of Americans, and his decision to add fuel to the gas cans of rioters burning down American cities.

    Included in my complaints as a taxpayer is Kelly’s suggestion that officers incapable of ridding themselves of the thoughts and feelings of which he disapproves turn in their badges. First of all, how does one go about concretely removing any thought or feeling? Does it require a rebirth or baptism, as some religious types believe? A reeducation camp, so popular with totalitarians? Or maybe some psychological crapola, like EST or something approved by the detestable flimflammers at the Southern Poverty Law Center? Whatever, there exists no proven method for cognitive cleansing, and given the costs involved in selecting, testing, and training police officers, Mr. Kelly’s suggestion is reckless and detrimental to his membership and the public.

    If I’m not mistaken, Paul Kelly is a police sergeant, one who is, or at least has been in his career, responsible for supervising line officers. Given this, along with his allegations, I would have to assume that Paul Kelly has leveled numerous charges of biased conduct against officers serving under him. Yet nowhere in his evidence-barren statement does he cite his eradication tally. Should it be assumed this is due to his humility or could it be his tally of downed racists is zero?

    Lastly, as I consider what it was that drove Mr. Kelly to his present state of derangement, I can only wonder what fate he would’ve wished upon Don Rickles, or any of the tens of millions of the diverse Americans who laughed at his act, had any of them ever joined the SJPD. I guess he has to be satisfied that they are now in, or soon headed for, hell.

    • You highlight some good examples as to why now is a good time to start apportioning more of the SJPD budget on training for cultural sensitivities rather than on more riot gear, weapons, fancy cruisers and exceptional overtime pay. Clearly, the training that the SJPD have on key soft skills adapted to meet the needs of the communities they serve is currently grossly deficient. Maybe it’s time to try and turn around and go in the other direction?

      Police reform please!

  9. Just curious. Has the author of this article or anyone involved in researching the alleged victim ever checked his internal affairs folder to see if he has ever been accused of making any sexist of inflammatory remarks?

    It would be a shame if the officer in this article was accused of doing the same thing to another officer, suspect or victim. I mean he talks about a double standard and how humiliated he felt. If he ever did it to someone else, is he really a victim. If this officer was ever investigated at the internal affairs unit, I am sure there could possibly be video or some type of documentation if he was ever investigated.

    Not to say what happened to the officer in briefing was acceptable because it was not. But there had to be more to what happened here. It appeared that SJPD did its investigation and came to a conclusion. Was any disciplined given out to any of the officers?

  10. Although it’s apparent reading comprehension is not your strong suit, I will nevertheless ask you as someone in whom is embedded a blame-it-on-the-cops mentality to consider what type of training would be powerful enough to change your position on this issue.

    Would a focus on the hard facts be a productive form of training? In the United States, approximately one out of seven people (45 to 50 million residents) live in the fifty largest cities. In many of those large cities police officers interact with the public (enforcement, calls for service, etc.) in excess of one thousand times a day per one million residents (LAPD, serving a population of 4 million, averaged 2.5 times that rate in 2019). If we use the figure of 1000 interactions/million residents/day that works out to 45 to 50 thousand contacts between big city cops and residents per day, 16 to 18 million contacts per year.

    Given the population demographics, and leaving out their extreme over-representation as crime perpetrators (victim-described), African-Americans interact with police a minimum of two million times a year in just the fifty biggest cities. Factor in the 280 million residents of smaller cities and towns and you can add an additional six and twelve million contacts. In other words, in a nation in which the police, at a minimum, interact with African-Americans eight to twelve million times annually, a crisis has been declared over a handful of controversial incidents.

    By the way, in a group to group comparison of 2019 killed by police, 61% were white (with nary a peep from reformers).

    This latest call for police reform has zero to do with law enforcement and everything to do with the Democratic Party’s desperate exploitation of America’s growing population of psychologically and socially broken young people. They are the clueless soldiers of Nancy Pelosi and the other scumbags who’ve turned a once-cohesive party into a disheveled cuckoo’s nest. But feel free to try your soft skills on them.

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