A Facebook post apparently published by a San Francisco Police Department investigator is renewing concerns about bias and the department’s role in weeding it out.
The post, which appears to come from SFPD Investigator Ernie Ferrando’s personal Facebook account, includes a meme mocking Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player who was recently sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison after authorities there purportedly found marijuana vape canisters in her luggage. Griner, who is Black and a lesbian, reportedly has a medical prescription for cannabis and is appealing the sentence.
In one half of the meme, labeled “How it started,” Griner is in her uniform, with a 2020 quote questioning whether the national anthem should be played before games. In the second half, labeled “How it’s going,” Griner is pictured behind prison bars, with a speech bubble next to her mouth of Star Spangled Banner lyrics. Mission Local obtained a copy of the post.
Reached by phone, Ferrando said he didn’t remember the Facebook post. However, he did not deny making it.
Ferrando added that he was advised by the SFPD’s media liaison not to speak with Mission Local.
But he kept talking.
“I guess the First Amendment doesn’t apply, but whatever,” Ferrando said. “I don’t know why it’s me — so much stuff is on Facebook — why all of a sudden I’ve been targeted.”
Though Ferrando did not opine on the meme in the original post, his Facebook friend Jim Pera, a retired SFPD veteran, did. “She can rot over there forever as far as I’m concerned,” wrote Pera in a comment.
And then Ferrando chimed back in: “Absolutely !!!! 🇺🇸”
Ferrando, a 33-year SFPD veteran and former member of the Gang Task Force, retired as a lieutenant in 2010, but returned in 2013 as a part-time employee doing background investigations on new police officers.
“Oh my God,” said Police Commissioner Jesús Gabriel Yáñez upon learning of the post. When hearing Ferrando’s affirmation: “Oh wow.”
Pera, who suggested Griner should “rot,” is the author of the novel “The Rampage of Ryan O’Hara,” in which a former army man travels cross-country, killing members of a Marxist organization who murdered a San Francisco police sergeant. The premise is reportedly based on a 1970 bombing suspected to be by the Weather Underground, to which Pera arrived on scene first.
SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Adam Lobsinger told Mission Local Thursday evening that the Internal Affairs Division had opened an investigation into Ferrando’s post.
“While the views expressed by Ernest Ferrando on his personal social media account do not reflect those of the San Francisco Police Department, we respect his right to express his opinion,” wrote Lobsinger in a statement. Chief Bill Scott did not return messages from Mission Local, but this story will be updated if he does.
While the First Amendment protects Ferrando’s right to free speech, it does not mandate that the SFPD, or any employer, tolerate that speech — and Ferrando’s conduct may be in violation of the police department’s policies. Yáñez said Ferrando’s post goes against the department’s code of conduct, a general order that says employees on and off duty “shall treat the public with courtesy and respect and not use harsh, profane or uncivil language.”
And the department’s policy on “Personal Use of Social Media” tells members to “exercise good judgment and carefully consider how their use of social media might impact the performance of their official duties.” Such duties are “best accomplished when all members conduct themselves in a professional, law-abiding, respectful and courteous manner,” the policy continues.
“Just the sentiment behind it is despicable, honestly,” Yáñez said. “There are more than just undertones of bias and racism.”
Even just in jest, Yáñez continued, no one employed by the police department should say those things.
“There’s nothing wrong with a police officer agreeing that somebody should go to jail,” said former Police Commissioner Bill Ong Hing, who called the comment “in bad taste,” but not necessarily a code of conduct violation.
But the mocking in the meme could show a lack of professionalism, Hing said. “They swear to, at all times, fulfill their job responsibilities in a professional manner and so — and this is just me — I certainly would investigate further because, on the face of it, it’s not representative of professional behavior for a person to be mocking somebody like that.”
“There is no off-duty comment,” said Yulanda Williams, a recently retired acting SFPD captain and current president of Officers for Justice. “He showed a complete lack of sensitivity, a complete lack of understanding of the next generation” who he’s meant to hire. As the first point of contact for incoming officers, Williams said, Ferrando and others doing background investigations are role models and must set an example.
“We’re supposed to be in the age of reform, we’re supposed to be a little bit more understanding,” Williams said. “What if one of the people who applied to the police department were to see this? What opinion would they have of him?”
The SFPD has found troubling language used by its members in the past. In 2015, racist text messages sent among SFPD police officers came to light, kicking off a series of reforms in the department.
But still today, the SFPD doesn’t check employees’ personal social media accounts or personal cell phones for professionalism or evidence of bias. The idea has been suggested during Police Commission meetings, and even by the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board.
Police Commissioner Debra Walker declined to comment on the Facebook post, but said that the SFPD’s current social media policy is insufficient and doesn’t allow for appropriate review by the Police Commission.
“I know that we don’t have adequate policy [even though] it’s what the reforms are suggesting, and I’m very supportive of forwarding policy around this,” Walker said.
Yáñez mentioned that he had raised the question at the Police Commission about periodically checking officers’ social media posts, since the SFPD’s policy dictates the same code of conduct whether on or off duty.
“If we’re serious as a department about really addressing the root causes of the disproportionate impacts of policing on our communities of color,” Yáñez continued, “we need to be looking at people’s behavior outside of the department, outside of their official duties.”
So far, Yáñez said he’s been met with resistance in trying to get such oversight off the ground.
Update, 9 p.m.: The SFPD originally declined to comment on Ferrando’s social media post. This story has been updated with the department’s updated statement.