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The Text Trail 

Public defender to probe racist, homophobic sheriff's office texts

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The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office is sending some of its leadership staff to tolerance training due to a text message scandal that's come to light in the wake of the sexual assault trial of former Sgt. Jason Scott Daniels.

A jury acquitted Daniels, 43, of a pair of sexual assault charges on June 16 that stemmed from allegations that he'd sexually assaulted and battered two women in unrelated incidents while on duty in 2013. Daniels, who joined the sheriff's office in 2000 and was promoted to sergeant in April of 2011, was fired with cause after his arrest in October of 2013. Sheriff Mike Downey declined to discuss the specifics of Daniels' termination, but said the sergeant was fired after an internal investigation into conduct that wasn't directly related to his criminal charges.

In the aftermath of Daniels' acquittal, court documents have come to light that detail a host of evidence that was ruled inadmissible at trial, including an empty condom box and a methamphetamine pipe found in the trunk of his patrol car, and some 700 inappropriate text messages allegedly found on his cell phone. According to court documents, the texts included a host of offensive and sexually charged language, as well as dozens of inappropriate photos, and many were sent to "co-workers, including those of lower ranking working at the sheriff's office."

Specifically, the texts included terms ranging from the sexually crass (boobies, boner, vag) and sexist (bitch, cunt, slut, whore) to the racist (nigger, dot head) and homophobic (fag, gay ass), according to court documents. It's unclear how many employees these texts were distributed to and whether they were all sent by Daniels, as Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming declined to comment on the case now that it's been adjudicated and Downey said he couldn't discuss it in any detail due to state laws protecting police officer personnel records from public disclosure.

While Downey confirmed there was an internal affairs investigation into the text messages, he declined to say how many employees sent or received them, if any of Daniels' subordinates reported them to a supervisor and whether any disciplinary action was taken against any of those involved beyond Daniels. But, the sheriff did say his department has implemented additional tolerance training in the aftermath of the investigation.

"Obviously, we did do an investigation into this and we did institute additional training," he said. "You can read what you want into that as far as if there were any other substantiated allegations against other deputies."

Specifically, Downey said his office has sent employees to Los Angeles to take courses at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance, which is run by a global human rights organization and offers a variety of trainings and programs, including ones for law enforcement. Additionally, Downey said all his department's sergeants are being cycled through a six-month training at the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute, which also includes courses at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The sheriff also added that his department has instituted revised sexual harassment and sensitivity policies, which employees are required to review annually.

But Downey quickly dismissed the notion the text messages in the Daniels case are in any way emblematic of a cultural problem at the sheriff's office.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I don't think there's a cultural issue that's permeated within the sheriff's office. I think within any work setting you're going to have isolated issues that come up. The sheriff's office does not tolerate that and we don't foster that kind of feeling or belief in any way and we've taken steps to provide ample training to make sure these types of issues don't come up again."

While it's unclear at this point how widely the texts on Daniels' phone were distributed or how many officers may have been involved, the case draws some parallels to a recent scandal that rocked the San Francisco Police Department after a series of text messages were uncovered amid an investigation into allegations that an off-duty officer committed a sexual assault.

A subsequent internal affairs investigation discovered texts that used "nigger" to refer to black people, "rag heads" for people of Middle Eastern descent and "beaners" to refer to Latinos. Discovery of the texts has prompted the San Francisco Public Defender's Office to review more than 200 criminal cases for signs of racial bias. Already, more than a dozen cases have been dismissed, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Four officers were implicated in the investigation. Three have left the department and the fourth is being disciplined, according to the police chief.

Similar scandals have have gripped the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office and the Oakland Police Department this year.

Humboldt County Public Defender Kevin Robinson said in the immediate wake of Daniels' arrest, his office conducted a review of pending and recently closed cases involving the former sergeant to see if any needed to be reopened or reinvestigated for evidence of malfeasence. In total, he said the office found "less than a handful of cases" and nothing that raised any alarm.

But Robinson said he was concerned to learn of the text messages. "Obviously, it's a concern for the Public Defender's Office whenever there are racist or homophobic comments from a deputy who's in charge of conducting or participating in investigations because you can't be sure the investigations are then carried out in a fair and impartial manner," Robinson said.

Robinson added that he anticipates talking to his senior deputies and investigators and coming up with an approach for looking into the issue, mostly to determine if there are active deputies or sergeants within the sheriff's office who were implicated in sending these types of messages.

For his part, Downey said the whole incident has been unfortunate but he feels confident the office has addressed it, starting by hand-picking employees to send to the tolerance trainings who he felt "would have the most influence on the rest of the agency when they get back."

"We don't condone this and we don't think it's proper behavior and we're taking steps to make sure it isn't repeated in the future," he said. "We take this seriously and the office has taken steps to make sure these types of issues don't come up again."

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