Hours after news surfaced that some Santa Clara County correctional deputies were being investigated for sending racist texts, a dozen civil rights leaders and members of the NAACP called for the jail guards’ ouster.
"This is an outrage," San Jose African American Community Service Agency leader Walter Wilson said on Friday at a news conference in front of the Main Jail, along with other minority activists and lawyers' groups.
Wilson was referring to texts that included anti-Jewish comments and discussion of hanging blacks, allegedly sent between a group of unknown jail guards at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas this year. "These people should not have guns and badges," he said.
"We condemn the racist behavior," added South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Ben Field, who is Jewish and took homage to the fact that one text apparently used the k- word to describe Jews and referenced using Jewish skin to make lampshades, as they did in Nazi Germany. "It’s totally unacceptable. They should not be in law enforcement and have no place in labor movement. They need to be found out and removed."
In an interview with NBC Bay Area on Friday, Sheriff Laurie Smith, who oversees the jails, acknowledged the investigation and called the texts, if true, "repugnant."
"There’s thousands of messages," she said. "I’ve seen many of them," adding that the guards are on administrative leave, "so they would have no contact with people they were sworn to protect."
"I can’t imagine people having those thoughts, let alone texting those thoughts to other people," Smith said. "They're beyond horrible. It speaks to what a person has in their heart."
The Mercury News first reported the racist text probe on Friday, saying a dozen guards were being investigated. Smith wouldn’t confirm that number but said it was less than that. She also said that any guard who sent such a text will be fired, though she did not indicate when the investigation would be completed.
The Mercury News also reported that the three guards now charged with the August beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree are not among those who exchanged the racist messages, though they send different, questionable texts of their own.
San Francisco police faced a similar racist text scandal of its own this year, who are linked to sending "White Power" messages against blacks, Mexicans, Filipinos and gays.
In Santa Clara County, Smith said the texts first came to light while her office was acting on a search warrant and seized the cellphone of Officer Ryan Saunders, a correctional officer suspected of associating with a known member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and who allegedly had racist texts on his phone.
Saunders was arrested in October on eight misdemeanor charges of accessing a state criminal database for unauthorized reasons and put on paid administrative leave. In October, a total of eight jail guards were put on leave following Tyree's death, some of them for sending racist texts. Three sources told NBC Bay Area at the time that union president, Lance Scimeca, is part of that racist text investigation. The Mercury News reported that it was Scimeca who texted the ethnic slur against Jews. Scimeca has repeatedly said he cannot comment on the investigation while he is on leave.
Smith said she hoped the investigation would be completed soon, and that it's limited to a few guards.
"I hope it’s a small number," she said. "It appears right now it’s a small number. We have for many months been doing an internal investigation on this, which is just about done."
But Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, said this latest revelation proves there aren’t just a "few bad apples," as was previously suggested by the Sheriff's Office, but a "larger, systemic problem with the jail."
"Logic compels us to see this not as a 'personal' issue of just a 'few' but clearly, irrefutably a systemic problem with our jail system," Jayadev said.