When were higher-ups at the San Francisco Police Department notified that their officers were sending one another bigoted text messages? Though SFPD Chief Greg Suhr has said that he was unaware of the texts until recently, lawyers for the officers facing firing in the scandal say that police brass knew about the remarks since 2012, which means that those cops cannot legally lose their jobs over the contretemps.

Following a much-publicized investigation, the SFPD moved to suspend Capt. Jason Fox, Sgt. Michael Winbunsin and officers Angel Lozano, Richard Ruiz, Sean Doherty, Rain Daugherty and Michael Celis, with the recommendation to the Police Commission that they be terminated. Two others implicated, Officer Michael Robison and Officer Noel Schwab, have already resigned as a result of the scandal.

The text messages took me completely by surprise," Suhr told the Board of Supes Public Safety Committee last week. Now, he didn't say exactly when that surprise took him, but other statements he and other officials gave to press suggested that SFPD weren't aware of the texts until January, 2015.

However, according to Michael Rains, who represents Fox, "his client received an internal affairs letter stating the department had the texts in 2012," the Ex reports.

Rains says that SFPD is claiming that they failed to act back then because the federal case in which the texts were uncovered, the corruption investigation into now-convicted former Sergeant Ian Furminger, would have been jeopardized.

SFPD has "got a problem,” Rains told the Chron.

“They just held on to them, by all accounts. They didn’t do anything with them. If they read them, they knew ... these text messages existed and were obviously the kind of messages that should trigger an internal investigation. They didn’t do anything.”

In addition to the eyebrow-raising implication that SFPD knew about their cops' sentiments, but didn't start to act on the issue until it received public attention, there's the matter of the time gap, which might prevent the termination of any of the racist texters.

Under California's Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, once a department is made aware of misconduct allegations, it only has one year to act on those charges. Here's the rule:

No punitive action, nor denial of promotion on grounds other than merit, shall be undertaken for any act, omission, or other allegation of misconduct if the investigation of the allegation is not completed within one year of the public agency's discovery by a person authorized to initiate an investigation of the allegation of an act, omission, or other misconduct.

In the event that the public agency determines that discipline may be taken, it shall complete its investigation and notify the public safety officer of its proposed discipline by a Letter of Intent or Notice of Adverse Action articulating the discipline that year.

So while SFPD is arguing that they had to hold off until the federal case against Furminger was a done deal, Rains "says there is nothing in state law that allows the city to keep the statute-of-limitations clock from ticking," the Chron reports.

“They have been sitting on their hands on these things for well over three years...The very problem that the statute of limitations tries to prevent has occurred.”

Tony Brass, who represents Michael Celis, agrees with Rains, saying that SFPD "had the information for well over a year," and that "The other officers were not part of any criminal investigation, so the Police Department should have acted within the year.”

Read all of SFist's coverage of the SFPD racist texting scandal here.