Over the course of 3,000 text messages exchanged among a handful of Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies, Don Morrissey hadn’t called anyone a “gook.” So when San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP president Jethroe Moore in January accused Morrissey of using the term, the 20-year cop who heads the county’s Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (DSA) indignantly demanded a retraction.
Morrissey insisted his only mistake was failing to carefully read a seven-month string of “stupid, offensive” text messages. “Don didn’t do anything wrong,” the DSA wrote in a news release threatening legal action against Moore.
Morrissey blamed his adversary, Sheriff Laurie Smith, for yanking him into the controversy that cost him his sergeant’s stripes. The union trotted out the same narrative about Morrissey’s previous downgrade, from lieutenant to sergeant several years prior, for spending hours a day browsing pornography at work, on the public’s payroll.
Morrissey may not have texted the anti-Asian slur, but newly unsealed documents obtained by San Jose Inside undermine his claim to victimhood.
According to a Feb. 24 arbitration decision upholding Morrissey’s demotion to deputy, the elected DSA president did more than peruse smut and tacitly countenance a slew of bigoted texts. In 2012, he used county computers to post Craigslist ads soliciting sex, tried to get coworkers to erase his digital tracks and, once caught, lied about it being part of a criminal investigation into prostitution in Saratoga, according to his own admission in arbitration records. From 2014 to 2015, he actively engaged in group texting threads rife with racist, homophobic and misogynist slurs.
“So a blow job for soup seems fair right (sic) Ryan,” Morrissey texted while on on duty Dec. 16, 2014, in a lengthy back-and-forth about inmates trading sexual favors for commissary items.
On Jan. 15, 2015, another union leader—his counterpart at the local Peace Officers’ Association, Sgt. Lance Scimeca—sent a vulgar joke: “YEAST INFECTIONS: Because once and a while women deserve to see what it feels like to live with an irritated cunt.” Morrissey responded, “Aka: Laurie Smith.”
Some of the texts began as work-related discussions. On March 9, 2015, subordinates initiated a conversation about the proper use of force under state Penal Code section 835(a) in which one of them texted, “Child molester and a moully??? Justified shoot.”
The DSA head apparently found that funny.
“Morrissey, who understood the term ‘moully’ to be a racial slur against African-Americans, responded ‘Hahaha,’ thus openly condoning and encouraging a racial slur in what could be construed legally as a public record,” attorney Morris Davis wrote in his 60-page arbitration ruling.
In other texts, the DSA president compared another deputy to a vagina and participated in threads in which Scimeca and subordinates call people “nigger loving retards,” a “Mexican Mudshark,” “howler monkeys” and “nig nogs.”
Morrissey’s demotion has moved to center stage in the heated battle between Sheriff Smith and challenger John Hirokawa, her former undersheriff, in the first contested general election for that office in 20 years.
Smith said she wanted Morrissey fired as soon as she heard about the texts while her former second-in-command defended the union leader. In September of last year, Hirokawa testified in support of Morrissey, suggesting that the county violated the union chief’s privacy and free speech rights by seizing the texts. The candidate also said that he believed Morrissey’s discipline was too severe, according to an arbitrator’s summary.
The union led by Morrissey returned the favor. It endorsed Hirokawa’s campaign two months after the retired undersheriff provided the supportive testimony and spent $186,828.35 in independent expenditures in the June primary to vault Hirokawa into the runoff. More DSA funding can be expected in November’s general election.
Detectives unearthed the texts in 2015 while looking into jail deputy Ryan Saunders’ ties to the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. By extending their search from his mobile phone to those of fellow officers in group texts, they found that from December of 2014 to June the next year, union presidents Morrissey and Scimeca and a handful of subordinates known as the “A Team”—deputies Rene Lucero, Jose Ortiz, Michael Fortino and officers Jesus Perez and Charles Ramirez—exchanged thousands of messages marked by repulsive hate speech both on and off duty.
At one point, the officers even yukked it up about another agency’s texting scandal. “Morrissey was right!!!!!” Ramirez wrote on April 6, 2015, about the so-called textgate embroiling their counterparts at the San Francisco Police Department.
“Faggot, niggers, gooks are nasty,” Scimeca texted back.
“Erase, erase, erase,” Lucero offered.
“Who are you people [and] how did you get my number?” Morrissey deadpanned one line later. “The following message is Pope Francis approved: all nigger faggots go to hell,” Scimeca wrote back seven minutes later.
Morrissey feigned ignorance several times during the drawn-out exchanges, including on March 17, 2015, in response to texts saying “filthy niggers have never been thought of highly” and “sorry if I offended any of you nigger loving pussy fags.” And again a week prior after Lucero, Ramirez and Saunders mocked a deputy, calling him a predator and saying he struggles to draw a line because he’s Mexican.
“Hey, Morrissey, where do we send in our phones to be destroyed?” Ramirez asked part way through a digital canon of offensive diatribes. Morrissey pretended to tune him out: “Morrissey is not here,” he quickly replied.
Scimeca continued the thread with a text celebrating racist brutality. “Never shall I split black oak,” Scimeca wrote, using a derogatory metaphor for a white man having sex with a black woman, “but I might be willing to chain one to the bumper and take it for a 55mph walk.”
Morrissey went silent as the others teased him about his passive disapproval. “What happened to Donnie?” Saunders asked in that same thread. “Fuck I like that dude. Quit running him off.” After a few more inflammatory texts, Saunders wrote, “Donny has to be deleting like crazy.”
The closest Morrissey came to chastising fellow officers was on Feb. 13, 2015. Scimeca began a chain of texts with, “What do you say to a nigger in a suit? Will the defendant please rise.” Saunders joined in with a crack of his own: “What does a black dude do after sex? Fifteen to life.” They quickly dispensed with any semblance of joke structure and fired off a bunch of epithets.
“Fuck niggers … they smell,” Lucero said. “Apes,” Scimeca added.
Then it got personal, with insults against the sheriff and her top brass. Namely, undersheriffs Hirokawa and Carl Neusel and then-Capt. Troy Beliveau.
“Fuck captain suck ass Beuliviue (sic) … cunt ass piece of shit!” Lucero wrote.
Scimeca answered: “You know he sucks Laurie’s ass. Blows Neusel. Tosses off [masturbates] Hiro with chopsticks, too.”
They dissed other higher-ranking staffers, saying a female officer “shares the pussy” and talking about how a black officer “has a bigger dick.”
Righteous indignation was apparently too much to expect from Morrissey.
“You fuckers done yet??” he asked, sounding more irritated than outraged. “I was at the movies while your anger was spewing.”
Other times, Morrissey met reams of discriminatory messages with silence. On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2014, Scimeca sent Morrissey a text saying, “Happy birthday, Buckwheat!” with Lucero chiming in, “My nigga!” Morrissey said nothing.
On Jan. 26, 2015, Scimeca sent a video montage of police shooting African-American men, saying the sequence gave him a “HARD ON” before adding, “Mother Nigger Down.” Morrissey again said nothing and denied seeing the video. Although records show that even after investigators later made him watch it, he testified that he didn’t consider it to be threatening enough to alert a superior.
In other text-versations, Morrissey was more gregarious. On Dec. 13, 2015, Scimeca teased Morrissey about giving him a new moniker.
“Your name can be ‘Queer-Britt,’” Scimeca wrote. Or “PortugueseSausageLover,” he added, before exclaiming, “Even our Gooks don’t like niggers.”
“Who Quan or the little shemale who looks like him?” Morrissey asked in return.
Months after the Ferguson protests and Black Lives Matter put police brutality into the national spotlight, the group scoffed at the movement.
“Why do black people block the highway when they get mad?” Saunders wrote about an Oakland protest making headlines. “Not a joke, but why? Of all things.”
“Howler monkeys gotta howl, nig-nogs gotta nig … enough said,” Scimeca pinged back.
“If it’s dark out they stand a high chance of getting run over,” Morrissey replied.
They made sexual comments about colleagues. On March 2, 2015, Ramirez texted a link to a pornographic image of a woman blowing smoke from her anus and vagina. Morrissey responded: “I didn’t know Perez smoked,” referring to one of his texting pals.
On Dec. 16, 2014, Morrissey prattled on and on about transactional sex in the jails. “The shit they [inmates] do for soups,” the officer wrote, adding, “What?? I’m a giver, but I don’t believe they should get anything for free. What lesson will they learn?” He continued by asking whether a blow job for soup seemed like a fair trade and “how many soups to have your ass licked.”
The Mercury News first reported on the texting probe in December of 2015 with the jail still under investigation for inmate Michael Tyree’s fatal beating by deputies Matthew Farris, Rafael Rodriquez and Jereh Lubrin. Sheriff Smith—already grappling with intense backlash from the Tyree murder—swiftly denounced the officers in the texting ring and called for their firing. Critics saw her condemnation as a cynical duck for cover amid unprecedented scrutiny from media, a citizen reform task force and attorneys litigating to fix the county’s troubled jails. Morrissey and Scimeca saw it as revenge.
While Scimeca and the other officers eventually took the fall for what they wrote, Morrissey never openly acknowledged his misconduct. Only now, with the newly released arbitration opinion, has the extent of his involvement come to light.
The record shows that Morrissey made one excuse after another for his failure to supervise. The union boss claimed to have never read many of the texts because he was busy with work and family. He also said he wrongly assumed that sending them on personal cellular phones kept them safe from scrutiny—despite settled case law and county policy to the contrary.
Morrissey further testified that he thought he only had to report misconduct on duty, even though a vast portion of the texts were indeed exchanged when one or more of the officers was at work and referenced colleagues and superiors. The union official said the county failed to adequately train him on policies that clearly require supervisors to immediately report or curtail misconduct.
At times, Morrissey contradicted his own testimony. In one conversation, he said he didn’t report the texts because he believed that someone had to be offended by the language for it to constitute a policy violation. Yet he later claimed to have found the language appalling, which by his own definition would’ve made it a reportable offense.
In their report completed in April of 2016, former Oakland police Chief Howard Jordan, former Oakland Lt. Michael Yoell and attorney Renne Sloane—independent investigators hired at Hirokawa’s behest to avoid the appearance of bias—found every single officer in the texting ring guilty of misconduct. Though they partially exonerated Morrissey for texting relatively less often and occasionally expressing mild disapproval, investigators say he still violated policy by failing to report wrongdoing.
General Order #11.00 specifies that, “employees of the Sheriff’s Office, whether on or off duty, will at all times and in all places, conduct themselves in a manner that will not bring or subject the department, their fellow employees or themselves to any criticism, disgrace, or public ridicule.” And General Order #11.03 requires a supervisor who directly observes misconduct to report it.
While guidelines do not specifically address text messaging amongst a group of officers, other policies enacted by the sheriff’s department in 2002 explicitly state, “It is the policy of the Sheriff’s Office to ensure that rights guaranteed by the constitutions and laws of the United States and the State of California for all citizens regardless of their race, color, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, or sexual orientation.” Officers are further advised that, “sexually explicit images, messages” and “ethnic or racial slurs” are banned from county networks” and there is a prohibition on “creation or dissemination of harassing or demeaning statements towards any individual or group.”
Ultimately, the arbitrator said it didn’t matter what devices Morrissey and other officers used or whether they texted on or off duty. He also affirmed that their banter in no way constituted protected speech.
“The texts at issue here do not have content including political or public concern to the greater community,” Davis summarized in his opinion. “But, as [Morrissey] himself defines them, are personal expressions of bias that one might express in a bar or a living room. Here, the department’s interest in preventing officers from denigrating inmates and coworkers on the basis of their sex, national origin or race is sufficient to outweigh any arguable privacy interest.”
Morrissey cast doubt on the integrity of the investigation, saying Smith put her thumb on the scale out of the same “retaliatory animus” that led her in 2015 to block his attempt to climb back to the rank of lieutenant after supporting her re-election challenger, retired Capt. Kevin Jensen, the year before. But the arbitrator dismissed Morrissey’s suggestion of political bias, citing Smith’s promotion from deputy to sergeant of two officers who also opposed her 2014 campaign.
According to Davis, the sheriff adequately distanced herself from the disciplinary proceedings. Far from being needlessly punitive, the arbitrator wrote, Undersheriff Neusel commended Morrissey for his help with a criminal case they both worked on years earlier. And though Neusel and Assistant Sheriff Beliveau thought Morrissey committed a fireable offense, they deferred to the other officers on the disciplinary review board who recommended demotion.
The arbitrator also disputed Morrissey’s assertion that other officers who did worse things faced lesser consequences. He said the county gave “more than sufficient cause” to demote Morrissey, whose past misconduct and lack of judgment made him unqualified to supervise anyone. Instead of showing leadership, arbitration records state, “Morrissey met the outrageous, violent and bigoted text exchanges with a wink and a nudge.”
“Thus,” Davis ruled, “the demotion is upheld and the grievance denied.”
On June 6, Morrissey’s attorneys filed a petition to vacate that decision, which they made public for the first time by attaching it as an exhibit in the court docket. The appeal claims the arbitrator failed to consider evidence that the county violated Morrissey’s right to privacy by basing its decision on “improperly obtained text messages.”
Scimeca brought up that same point years earlier in September of 2015, weeks after Tyree’s beating death. “Know your rights regarding personal property,” Scimeca said in a YouTube video posted in his capacity as union president. “If they do not have a warrant to take it, don’t just freely give it. No one has a right to your personal property but you.”
That’s not necessarily the case, according to retired judge LaDoris Cordell, who sat on a panel to investigate police bias San Francisco after the city’s 2015 texting scandal.
“With respect to racist texting by officers on their personal cellphones, such speech is a clear indication that the officers cannot be trusted to interact with communities of color whom they despise,” she wrote in an email to San Jose Inside. “The department is under an obligation to remove these officers who, by their own words, pose a clear and present danger to the communities they have been entrusted to protect.”
Government employees, especially those who work in law enforcement, would be wise to treat their cellphone communications as a potential public record, she said.
“Their phones can be subject to discovery by the police agency in an internal affairs investigation or by a defense attorney in a criminal case or a civil attorney in a use of force lawsuit,” explained Cordell, who served as San Jose’s police auditor from 2010 to 2015. “The same is true of just about any public employee—obtainable without probable cause or a warrant.”
Unions, of course, have a duty to protect their own. But some are better about balancing employee rights with public accountability.
When San Jose police Officer Phil White made threatening comments about Black Lives Matter, he nearly lost his job. The San Jose Police Officers’ Association won his position back through arbitration against the wishes of the city and top brass, but not before White agreed to own up to his mistake so the department could restore community trust.
Morrissey, by contrast, still paints his discipline as a politically motivated witch hunt, ignoring the question of whether the texts point to a problem much deeper and more systemic. As did his personal friend and former political collaborator Scimeca, who compared the investigation to a literal witch hunt. “This harkens back to the Salem Witch Trials from 1692,” he said in the same 2015 YouTube clip.
Citing the same court order that prevents Smith from elaborating, Hirokawa still echoes the DSA’s pedantic quibbling over personnel protocol, steering the conversation away from more fundamental issues of bias and accountability. Both the candidate and his biggest union backer seem more interested in how the county found out about the messages than how they undermine the integrity of their profession as a graphic reminder of institutional racism.
In a Sept. 18, 2017, interview for Morrissey’s arbitration, Hirokawa expressed concerns about First Amendment and privacy issues and said it wasn’t clear whether supervisors have a duty to report misconduct that occurs at private functions “like a birthday party, wedding, gathering or just being together and drinking.”
“And you didn’t believe that that was clear in the general order, the obligation to report?” he was asked.
“For me it wasn’t clear—that clear,” Hirokawa testified.
“And what was the privacy-related concern that you had?”
“The privacy would be the textings on private cell phones off duty,” Hirokawa answered.
In a recent phone interview, the ex-undersheriff echoed that same point.
“Police officers should be held to a higher standard, of course,” Hirokawa acknowledged. “But that wasn’t the question. The question was whether using racist or sexist terms makes someone a racist or sexist. If somebody uses those terms while on duty, then that’s a sustained charge.”
If they made the same remarks off duty, he added, that’s another matter.
“I would need more information,” Hirokawa said, noting that he retired long before the arbitrator issued a ruling in the case.
Policy aside, it’s hard to fathom that a supervisor who saw even a fraction of the vitriolic texts felt no moral or ethical obligation to intervene. It’s also hard not to wonder how the bias evinced in those texts affected the way Morrissey and fellow officers behaved on the job. San Francisco’s texting scandal involving 14 officers prompted authorities to revisit more than 3,000 criminal cases.
Local sheriff’s officials say the texts in Morrissey’s case had no such effect because the deputies he corresponded with worked in the jails, not on patrol.
Sheriff Smith stands by what she said three years ago about Morrissey’s involvement: that he should have no place in law enforcement.
“This is not a question of First Amendment rights or any other excuse,” she reiterated in an emailed statement Monday. “This is about right versus wrong and you cannot defend the indefensible. As sheriff I think they all should have been fired for their abhorrent behavior and for anyone to say a demotion is too severe of a penalty lacks the judgment to be sheriff.”
Retired U.S. Army major and combat veteran Joe LaJeunesse, a court bailiff who ran against Smith in the primary, echoed Smith’s thoughts on the subject.
“Anyone guilty of such actions, whether on- or off-duty, would have and should have been discharged,” he said upon learning of the texts.
On his campaign website, which has since been taken down, LaJeunesse also questioned DSA’s endorsement of Hirokawa.
“Is this connected to the fact that he testified on Mr. Morrissey’s behalf in the racist texts case?” he asks. “Or that the DSA vice president [Roger Winslow] is the individual who asked Hirokawa to run for sheriff in the first place? Does this sound like cronyism?”
Hirokawa said their blame is misplaced, and that the sheriff could have fired Morrissey if she honestly wanted to.
“How am I to argue whether this was an appropriate decision or an inappropriate decision?” he said of the demotion. “The message that [Smith] has been trying to portray is that somehow I was responsible for the decision or that I made the recommendations and I was trying to protect these people. So here I am having to defend myself. But I was not part of the decision-making discussions. I wasn’t privy to the strategy or the reasons why the county believes the discipline was fair or appropriate. But she was.”
Though the other texters no longer staff the jails, Morrissey remains one of Hirokawa’s key political backers.
Morrissey, who downplayed his own quips about sexual assault in jail as “dark humor,” still helms the DSA and continues serving as secretary of California’s powerful Peace Officers Research Association of California. PORAC’s mission, in addition to backing tough-on-crime bills and opposing those related to body cameras and stronger oversight—is “to provide education and training, and define and enhance standards for professionalism” and to “promote public awareness that encourages and maintains the image of a professional peace officer.”
The presence of racism, misogyny and homophobia within law enforcement organizations, though sometimes characterized as private conversations, has a public cost. It undermines the notion that all citizens are equal before the law and reinforces suspicion of police in communities that have historically faced discrimination. That influences crime prevention and public safety, and there are quantifiable costs as well.
After tapes surfaced of Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman using the n-word, a jury returned a not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The failed prosecution cost Los Angeles County taxpayers $9 million in 1995 dollars.
Racial bias in the Los Angeles Police Department triggered riots in 1992 after the Rodney King beating. Disclosed messages from the night of the vehicle chase revealed an officer describing a domestic violence call at a black family’s home the same night as “right out of Gorillas in the Mist.” The riots left more than 50 dead, 4,000 injured and an estimated $1 billion in property damage.
Ferguson, Missouri. overhauled its police department after officer Darren Wilson, who admitted using the n-word, shot and killed a black teenager he suspected of robbing a convenience store. Estimates of the costs to local agencies of dealing with the unrest in the months following the shooting range from $6 million to $22 million.
The biggest cost may be the loss of public trust.
A 2016 investigation of the Baltimore Police Department by the U.S. Department Of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found that BPD failed officers accountable for using racial slurs or engaging in acts of racial bias. Investigators “found numerous examples of BPD officers using racial slurs or making other statements that exhibit bias against African Americans without being held accountable by the department. These racial disparities and indications of intentional discrimination erode community trust that is a critical component of effective law enforcement.”
Those implications will no doubt be debated up through the fall election. Voters will have to choose between a sheriff accused of trying to fire a union boss in retaliation and a challenger protecting a political patron who failed to report comments about dragging a black woman from a car bumper.