John Hirokawa says he would have demanded accountability if he had known what he does now about a union leader’s involvement in a texting scandal.
When asked once more in a recent interview whether he thinks Don Morrissey, the twice-demoted president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA), should have been fired, the retired undersheriff finally gave a definitive answer.
“Based on what’s being reported, based on the information that has been provided and that I had access to today, then I would say yes (to firing Morrissey),” the sheriff’s candidate said two days after the weekly newspaper Metro brought to light new details about Morrissey’s role in thousands of hateful and bigoted group texts. Previously Hirokawa called Morrissey’s demotion from sergeant to deputy “too severe.”
Morrissey’s political action committee spent $186,828.35 in independent expenditures to promote Hirokawa’s candidacy in the June 2018 primary, helping cost incumbent Sheriff Laurie Smith enough votes to force a runoff this fall.
Hirokawa had many chances to learn about Morrissey’s role in the texting activity and, by his own admission, chose not to.
After a criminal probe initially unearthed the vile text messages three years ago, the Sheriff’s Office convened a series of all-hands-on-deck meetings to talk about how to deal with the flurry of media coverage. The discussions, which took place toward the latter end of 2015, involved top brass, communications staff and private public relations consultants gathered around a conference table, passing around a binder full of some of the 3,000 texts. It was a first-of-its-kind scandal for the agency, which was still reeling from unprecedented scrutiny after three jail guards fatally beat a mentally ill inmate barely a few months prior.
As second-in-command and head of the jails, Hirokawa took part in the huddles alongside Smith. They talked about the racist, sexist, transphobic content of the text messages exchanged among about a dozen officers, including the heads of both the custody and patrol unions: Morrissey and Lance Scimeca of the Correctional Peace Officers’ Association. Like law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, the local sheriff’s office had to figure out how to address a public relations nightmare unique to the digital age at a time of mounting public distrust over policing.
But Hirokawa said he has little memory of those discussions. In a June 22 interview, the retired undersheriff said he made a point of not reading that binder full of of texts because he believed it would violate the privacy rights of the officers who sent them.
“There was still a concern that … we’re sharing personnel records with people who don’t have a right to know, in violation of personnel law,” Hirokawa said of his mindset at the time.
When an independent investigative team led by retired Oakland police chief Howard Jordan hammered out a draft report on the case about three months later, Hirokawa was tasked with editing it. Instead of meticulously poring over the 26-page document, however, Hirokawa says he skipped to the end and “skimmed” the findings. Weighing in too heavily would have compromised the integrity of the investigation, he explained.
“And, you know,” he said, “it looked all good to me.”
When he was summoned to testify for Morrissey’s arbitration case, in which the union president contested his demotion, Hirokawa spoke long enough to fill more than 180 pages of transcripts. Yet even then, the concerns he raised involved the privacy and free speech rights of officers, and whether the texts were sent on or off duty.
Hirokawa maintains that at no point since 2015 did he read the content of the text messages or realize which ones Morrissey personally sent or responded to. When he sought the DSA’s endorsement in late 2017, he said he never broached the subject with the embattled union president because of the same concerns about confidentiality.
Only in the past week did Hirokawa call Morrissey out. The day Metro published a story about an arbitration ruling that upheld his demotion from sergeant to deputy, Hirokawa said he called Morrissey and urged him to step down. And for the first time this past week, Hirokawa said unequivocally that he believes Morrissey should have been fired.
“If the texts are true, he should have been terminated,” Hirokawa said.
Hirokawa has downplayed the effect of Morrissey’s involvement in the scandal on the DSA’s reputation and its political endorsement. “He’s just one man,” Hirokawa said.
By Jennifer Wadsworth, Special to the Dispatch