Acting Captain Yulanda Williams this week sued the city, the former president of the Police Officers Association, and an SFPD commander. Photo by Charlotte Silver

Citing a yearslong campaign of harassment and discrimination and a series of attempts to undermine her career, acting San Francisco Police Department Captain Yulanda Williams yesterday filed suit against the city of San Francisco and a pair of higher-ups in both the San Francisco Police Department and its union, the Police Officers Association.

She is seeking redress to the tune of $2.5 million.

Williams was at the very center of the “textgate” scandal, during which 14 SFPD officers in 2011 exchanged a litany of bigoted messages; she was personally assailed in racist and misogynistic terms. Williams, who is black, has been a police officer for nearly 30 years and is the longtime president of the Officers for Justice, an association of black SFPD officers.

In the wake of that scandal, Williams publicly criticized the culture of the San Francisco Police Department, which she described as rife with overt racism and racial biases. After those criticisms, she once again became a target of written and verbal ire from the Police Officers Association as well as fellow officers and SFPD superiors, whom she alleges assailed her character, spread rumors meant to undo her departmental promotions, and singled her out for complaints about her appearance, the complaint says.

Former POA President Martin Halloran and then-Captain Denise Flaherty, who was promoted to commander earlier this month, are also named as defendants in the suit.

Mission Local sent copies of the lawsuit to the City Attorney’s office, the POA and the SFPD asking for comment.

The SFPD deferred to the City Attorney: “We haven’t been served with the lawsuit, and we’re not going to comment until we’ve had a chance to review it,” said City Attorney spokesman John Coté

Reached today, Williams declined to say much, noting she was on the clock. “On the record,” she told Mission Local, “I can say that, as a whistleblower, I deserved to be protected.”  

She referred us to her attorney, Russell Robinson, who said this suit was necessitated by “continuing violations of her rights … harassment that never seems to end.”

The case lays out, in painstaking detail that is often difficult to parse, a long sequence of derogatory written and verbal actions — or inactions — from both SFPD and POA leadership toward Williams.

After she piqued the ire of the POA by complaining about racism within the department and participating with the “Blue Ribbon Panel” on policing convened by District Attorney George Gascón, “there followed a series of letters and propaganda attacks by the SFPOA, specifically then-President Martin Halloran,” her suit alleges. “These attacks were made publicly, and appear to have been approved by the Chief of Police, Gregory Suhr.”

Following these so-called “propaganda attacks,” Williams said she was approached by a fellow officer on the street, and, in a conversation witnessed by a colleague, she was told to “pick blue over black. Pick a side. You seem confused about this.” Her suit alleges “this appears to have occurred because of the SFPOA’s action following Plaintiff’s Blue Ribbon Panel testimony … Plaintiff has been attacked verbally, via email, newspapers, and letters. Concerns are for her own safety, and she uses more sick days and frequently stays inside handling paperwork to avoid contact or judgment from others.”

Williams alleges she is being attacked by fellow cops on cop-affiliated blogs and Facebook pages. A purported photo of her shopping while in full uniform was posted on such sites, in what she argues was an organized attempt to kneecap a potential promotion. Circulation of that photo sparked an internal investigation and, allegedly, led to complaints being made directly to the chief of police.

She said she has been reprimanded for speaking to the media — even on her own time and even regarding matters other than her own situation — as her comments may not “be taken in a positive manner.”

Williams further alleges she is being singled out as a black woman. To wit, she alleges then-Captain Denise Flaherty complained about Williams’ “Afro” hairstyle and long fingernails. This constitutes racial animus, the suit charges: Similar complaints were not made about white officers with ponytails or braids, which also ostensibly contravene SFPD protocols. Williams further alleges that Flaherty, who oversaw the Police Academy, deployed the trainees under her command to “take unauthorized photos of Plaintiff, follow Plaintiff, and conduct secret uniform inspections. Plaintiff’s conversations and communications with the SFPD recruits are being monitored by Flaherty and Flaherty’s cohorts.”

Williams’ suit states that she has asked Commander David Lazar to intervene with Flaherty on four separate occasions, to no avail.

Her suit lays out 11 causes of action, including racial discrimination, age discrimination, race-based harassment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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7 Comments

  1. Campers,

    This woman has been through Hell.

    Did you know she was one of the few people to escape Jonestown?

    Some of these same cops harassed Patrol Special head, Jane Warner
    on her death bed and left her crying.

    They’d given her a ticket on Halloween in the Castro (her designated
    beat) …

    For?

    Jaywalking!

    Time to break up the SFPD thru attrition.

    Make next thousand hires Patrol Specials.

    They actually walk the beat and know the people.

    Disappointed to hear Lazar is part of this.

    Thought he was one of the good guys.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  2. Sounds like she’s not a team player and pulls out the race card whenever there’s a slight criticism of her job performance.

    1. Bootlicking idiot. Team player means ignoring all the bad shit and being a puppet?? Get the fuck out of here.

  3. Deeply systemic racism and bias practices, from the top down …
    SFPD is always trying to sweep their dirt under the rug “so to speak” — tolerant of badly behaving police officers. The SFPD culture is absolutely racist towards Black employees (sworn and civilians). I totally agreed with fighting back legally. Thank you Acting Captain Yulanda Williams for speaking out and fighting back.

  4. We San Franciscan’s need more community policing and we need to stop hiring people who do not reside in San Francisco. These racist people they keep hiring from the suburbs need to find jobs in their OWN Cities. No more outside hires!

  5. I hate to break it to Mission Local and to the author of this article but the title is mis-leading.

    Yulanda Williams is a Lieutenant in the SFPD. She receives captain’s pay for the position she is in. The pay will help increase her pension. At any time another Lieutenant can take her spot (and pay) and she can be sent anywhere a lieutenant is needed.

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