- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - About a dozen Northern California guards at a troubled jail system are under investigation for repeatedly exchanging racist text messages.

Santa Clara Sheriff Laurie Smith said guards have been placed on leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. Smith said she will fire any guard found to have texted racist sentiments.

Smith declined to specify exactly how many guards are under investigation or have been placed on leave.

The texting scandal surfaced three months after three guards were charged with murder in the beating death of a mentally ill inmate.

The San Jose Mercury News first reported the investigation Friday (http://bayareane.ws/1N85gYo) and obtained several of the texts, which were found on a private phone of a guard recently charged with illegally accessing confidential records from a government criminal justice database.

Investigators seized the phone of Ryan Saunders with a search warrant.

Saunders was charged in October with eight counts of accessing records of people he knows from the Criminal Justice Information Control, which tracks suspects in the court system.

Saunders has not entered a plea and his attorney Joshua Olander didn’t return a call Friday.

The text messages obtained by the Mercury News show guards disparaging blacks, Jews, Asians and Latinos with slurs and allusions to violence.

In one exchange, a guard texted a group of colleagues that police killed 550 people in 2015.

“If they’re black, it doesn’t count,” responded one of the guards.

“I’m absolutely appalled,” the sheriff said.

The Mercury News said Lance Scimeca, head of the guards’ union, is among the guards under investigation and on leave. He is alleged to have used a slur against Jews and saying the person’s “hide” should be used to make lampshades.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing I can say. I was ordered not to discuss my case with anyone in a letter from the Sheriff’s Office,” Scimeca told the Mercury News. “This is where the sheriff has me over the barrel.”

Scimeca told the paper he wasn’t told why he was placed on leave in September.

He didn’t return a phone call or email inquiry from The Associated Press.

No other guards were identified. The Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association didn’t return a call.

The sheriff said the FBI is also looking into the texts as part of an investigation of jail operations prompted by the beating death of mentally ill inmate David Tyree in September in the county’s San Jose jail.

Most of the guards involved in the text messaging were working at the county’s Elmwood jail in Milpitas, California when the slurs were exchanged, the sheriff said.

San Francisco police faced a similar situation earlier this year when racist text messages exchanged over a two-year period surfaced in March. More than a dozen officers were involved.

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Information from: San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, http://www.mercurynews.com

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