A San Francisco police officer fired for sending a racist text message has become the first member of the rank-and-file to win back his job by challenging his discipline through a new appeals process.
The city’s Police Commission permanently stripped Officer Joseph E. Reyes of his badge and gun in early 2017 for texting a slur often used to disparage Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent in an off-duty message to his partner.
“I think we need to let the rag heads to fight amongst themselves,” Reyes wrote in a 2015 text exchange, referring to conflicts in Iraq and Libya, according to newly released records. “Once a sect starts becoming dominant, we need to covertly support them and help them defeat the opposition then set them up as a dictatorship just like we did with the Shah of Iran.”
The decision to fire Reyes came on the heels of the San Francisco Police Department facing not one but two racist text messaging scandals that tarnished its reputation and led to the ouster of a former police chief.
But Reyes contested his discipline and, in 2020, became the first in a new wave of officers filing appeals with the state Office of Administrative Hearings to successfully overturn the will of the Police Commission.
An Oakland-based administrative law judge found that the commission abused its discretion by firing Reyes, ordering the police oversight body to instead suspend him for three months, records show.
Reyes is now back on patrol as an officer at the airport.
The public is only now learning about the case against him, and his overturned discipline, under a new state transparency law, Senate Bill 16, that requires agencies to release police misconduct records related to bias. Police Commission staffers released records from his case earlier this month.
Reyes is among nine or 10 officers who have appealed the Police Commission’s decisions to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, according to public records and numbers provided by commission staff.
Only one of those officers—Reyes—has won an appeal.
New Rulings, New Rules
Previously, police had to file lawsuits to challenge their discipline. But that changed after a former officer, Paulo Morgado, sued the city over his termination and multiple courts ruled that San Francisco was violating the rights officers have under state law to appeal disciplinary decisions.
Those rulings led to the Police Commission adopting rules outlining the new appeals process in 2019 following negotiations between the Department of Human Resources and the police union.
Since the new rules went into effect, Reyes and at least six others have appealed their firings or suspensions for a range of misconduct including domestic violence, an unlawful search and a hit-and-run, according to a review of public records. At least two of those appeals have failed.
The officers who filed unsuccessful appeals include Christopher Kohrs, who was known as the “Hot Cop of the Castro” before the commission fired him in 2020 for striking two pedestrians in North Beach and fleeing, and Brett Hernandez, who was suspended last year for an unlawful search.
Through his attorney, Reyes declined to comment on his case. Attempts to reach him directly by phone were unsuccessful.
San Francisco police did not answer detailed questions about the case but confirmed that the department complied with the administrative law judge’s ruling and provided a brief statement on behalf of Chief Bill Scott.
“Chief Scott recognizes that part of being a leader in 21st Century policing means not just creating new policies, practices, and procedures, but continually reviewing those policies, practices, and procedures that govern our department,” SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Adam Lobsinger said.
The police union did not return requests for comment.
Reyes, who is Filipino American, joined the department in 2009 and was assigned to Taraval Station in the Sunset at the time of his offending text.
Authorities discovered his message while conducting an unrelated sexual assault investigation into the officer at the center of the second texting scandal, Jason Lai, who happened to be partners with Reyes.
When confronted with evidence of the message, records show Reyes apologized for using a racial slur and later sought to make amends by volunteering at an Islamic Center in the East Bay.
He denied being racist or having prejudice toward people in the Middle East and said he was specifically speaking about “militant and radical Muslims” who were killing Americans, not “Middle Easterners or Arabs in general.”
Reyes downplayed the severity of his conduct when compared to the heinous texts exchanged by officers in the previous scandals, which included messages such as “cross burning lowers blood pressure.”
At the same time, Reyes owned up to his mistake and described himself as being “truly repentant.” He said his text did not reflect his actions on duty.
“I love my job and I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Reyes told the commission. “I’m good at it and come to work to help people. … Now more than ever do I need this support of my SFPD family.”
But Reyes could not convince the commission that he should keep his job.
“The issue here is not whether or not you’re a racist,” the late commission President Julius Turman told him at a hearing. “I cannot look into your heart. I cannot change your world view. All I can do is make a judgment as to whether or not you’re someone that should be policing San Francisco’s citizens.”
The commission voted 5-0 to fire Reyes, with Turman citing concerns that Reyes might use the slur again on-duty.
But years later, Administrative Law Judge Karen Reichmann found that the Police Commission abused its discretion, saying in her ruling that the commission erred in firing him over a “single slur in a private text.”
“There was no evidence that (Reyes) harbors racial animus or has engaged in racial discrimination in performing his duties as a peace officer,” she wrote.
Brian Cox, an attorney and police watchdog with the Public Defender’s Office, said the case demonstrates why California needs to continue passing laws that make more police misconduct records public.
Cox said an officer who uses a racial slur should lose their privilege to serve San Franciscans. He said having an officer on the force who harbors bias calls into question their decisions to interact with the members of the public and undermines trust in a system that is supposed to be impartial.
“We need more laws like this,” Cox said, “to help the public understand who is policing them and then to root out the bias and eliminate it.”
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]