Racist Texts at Center of Probe of Dozen Santa Clara County Jail Guards

Tracey Kaplan and Robert Salonga, Inside Bay Area, December 4, 2015

At least a dozen guards in Santa Clara County’s troubled jails repeatedly exchanged racist text messages over the past year–mixing vile slurs with casual brutality, and even sharing images of a Nazi swastika and a lynching, this newspaper has learned.

The first group of messages, which surfaced in an ongoing investigation that began well before three guards were charged this fall with the beating death of an inmate, vilify blacks and, to a lesser degree, Latinos, Vietnamese and Jews. In one text, an officer wrote to his colleagues, “We could hang a n—-r in Haiti for about 75 bucks tops.”

Lance Scimeca, the head of the correctional officers union, is among the guards who sent and received many objectionable texts. In one message, he referred to a “k–e,” using an ethnic slur against Jews and suggesting that lampshades be made from his “hide.”

By and large, the texts don’t urge fellow guards to commit violent acts, but some do appear to applaud violence, particularly against blacks. “Cops have already killed 550 people in 2015,” one guard texted to a group of guards that did not include Scimeca, prompting another to respond, “If they’re black, it doesn’t count.”

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{snip} Across the country recently, law enforcement officers have either resigned, been suspended or been fired for sending racist text messages, including in San Francisco, where seven officers were fired and six others disciplined for exchanging racist and homophobic text messages that included comments about lynching blacks and “white power.”

Early this year, the first set of racist texts in Santa Clara County jails was discovered when the Sheriff’s Office–acting on a search warrant–seized the cellphone of a correctional officer suspected of associating with a known member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, a fireable offense, according to court documents and a news release from the Sheriff’s Office. Dozens of racist texts were found on Officer Ryan Saunders’ phone over a period of several months, sources said. He appears to have been among those who regularly received the messages rather than sent them. However, he sent at least one message: “I know you are on vacation, going to be more f—– up than a n—–‘s checkbook by 4 p.m.”

Saunders was arrested in October on eight misdemeanor charges of accessing a state criminal database for unauthorized reasons and put on paid administrative leave. Meanwhile, authorities began to probe the texts more extensively, seizing additional guards’ cellphones and cataloging a pattern of offensive remarks.

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Among the most prolific alleged texters in Santa Clara County was the president of the county correctional officers union, Scimeca, who works at Elmwood jail, not in the Main Jail where Tyree was killed, according to sources familiar with the investigations. The elected leader of the county’s jail guards, he was put on paid administrative leave in mid-September after 20 years on the job pending possible firing for a personnel matter the sheriff is not revealing.

Scimeca also said he was restricted from commenting, saying only, “Unfortunately, there is nothing I can say. I was ordered not to discuss my case with anyone in a letter from the Sheriff’s Office. This is where the sheriff has me over the barrel.”

His texts, viewed by this newspaper, include references to black people as “n——” and “yard apes,” and to Vietnamese as “g—-.” In one message, he remarked, “Think of all the lamp shades we can make from that k–e’s hide. I mean there is always a bright side to everything.”

In another text, Scimeca wrote, “What do you say to a n—– in a suit? Will the defendant please rise,” prompting another guard to respond “F— n—–s.”

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The guards oversee a jail population of which only 22 percent is white. About 55 percent of inmates are Hispanic; 14 percent black; and 8 percent Asian, plus a few who are either Native American or classified as “other.” The guards themselves are fairly diverse. Whites and Latinos make up slightly more than a third each; Asians, including Pacific Islanders and Filipinos, make up 13.5 percent; and blacks 8.7 percent.

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