I-Team

SFPD 'Videogate' case finally wrapping up

Monday, August 16, 2010
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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The chief at the time called it "an extremely dark day in the history of the San Francisco Police Department -- two dozen officers suspended for taking part in a comedy video for a Christmas party. Four and a half years later, the disciplinary hearings are finally wrapping up, and the I-Team is back with some new information on what became known as "Videogate."

It all began with one, off-color comedy video; the mayor called it racist and homophobic. But, there are more videos, and they are being seen outside the SFPD for the first time. They are part of the defense for two officers who are still facing hearings before the Police Commission this week.

Jimmy Lewis was an 18-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department. He was a street cop out of the Bayview Station with a distinguished record when his career came to a screeching halt because of his appearances in an office comedy video.

"These videos have been done inside the police department for many years, I've seen them starting from a young patrolman," Lewis said.

But in this case, the police chief at the time, Heather Fong, and Mayor Gavin Newsom called a news conference to play clips from the video and announce two dozen officers were being suspended.

"This is a dark day, an extremely dark day in the history of the San Francisco Police Department," Fong said at the time.

"It is shameful, it is offensive, it is sexist, it is homophobic and it is racist, and we're going to make sure it ends and it ends immediately," Newsom said.

Lewis tried to argue the skits were just harmless, inside jokes, but he wound up in the records room while his charges -- neglect of duty, harassment, bringing discredit to the department -- made their way to the Police Commission. Four and a half years later, he is finally having his hearing this week.

"We need him out on the street, we need him to fight crime, putting him in the records room, paying him the salary that he makes and having him push records is just not I think appropriate or reasonable," Lewis' attorney Waukeen McCoy said.

McCoy tells ABC7 part of his strategy will be to prove the comedy video that became known as "Cops Gone Wild" was part of the culture of the department and that the top brass endorsed and even participated in similar videos in the past.

The I-Team received four of the older videos from an anonymous source. They were produced by the same officer who made "Cops Gone Wild." Andrew Cohen resigned this past spring to avoid being fired, and declined to be interviewed for this story.

The skits employ some of the same off-color humor and racial stereotyping that got the Videogate officers in trouble.

In the Videogate case, the officers took heat for making fun of the homeless; it is the same story line in the older videos.

The older videos were also shot using city resources -- a police station, officers in uniform and in squad cars, even a courtroom. And, high-ranking officers appear in the videos. In one, a lieutenant at the time clearly participates in a skit about parking at the Tenderloin Station.

There are also two roast tapes for higher-ups -- a lieutenant transferring from the Tenderloin task force to traffic and Capt. Sue Manheimer, now the police chief in San Mateo.

Her roast video pokes fun at her for often being out of the office. There was even a cameo from Tony Ribera, shortly after he retired as police chief.

McCoy argues if all these officers and command staff did not get in trouble, why should Lewis and the other Videogate officers?

"The officers have noticed that their superiors and other patrol officers have participated in the making of videos in past history and they haven't been disciplined," McCoy said.

The ABC7 I-Team posed the question to George Gascon, who has been police chief for a year.

"Well, you know, I inherited this case, the cases that were with the Police Commission prior to my arrival here, I'm dealing with the cases that were filed. Undoubtedly, we could go back years and years back and continue to find other problems," current San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon said.

McCoy also complains about disparate treatment; the Asian officers in the "Cops Gone Wild" video were not suspended. Others received a slap on the wrist, short suspensions or were forced to resign. Last week, one officer received nine months off without pay.

The girlfriend of the videos' producer has her police commission hearing Tuesday. Officer Wendy Hurley did not respond to ABC7's request for an interview.

Lewis will be the last of the officers to have a hearing, later in the week.

"I've gone through many phases in four and a half years, I've been angry, become more resilient, want to fight," he said.

Several of the Videogate officers are being asked to record another video. This time, it is an apology to fellow officers and to the public.

The department even wrote a Videogate script. It it reads in part, "This video brought discredit to the Department and its members. My actions were wrong and inappropriate ... and I sincerely apologize."

A written settlement says the police chief can use the apology videos as he "sees fit, including, at minimum, release to the media, publication, and display throughout the department."

"It's a larger message to the organization and possibly the community, that you know what, our people recognize it's unacceptable, we want to make it very clear that it's unacceptable, there was nothing funny about it, we want to make that very, very clear," Gascon said.

Gascon says he is not sure how he will use the apology videos. All the comedy videos came out of the same SFPD video unit that produced award-winning films for the department -- the "Hearts of the City" series even played on public TV.

After four and a half years, Lewis has just four hours to present his defense -- he filed the paperwork to allow ABC7 cameras into his hearing, so we'll be there and report back to you.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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Tags:
gavin newsom, SFPD, george gascon, i-team, dan noyes
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