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California AG launches probe over racist texts by Bay Area city police officers

The investigation by California's top cop comes on the heels of ongoing probes by the FBI and the Contra Costa County district attorney.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday that his office will investigate the Antioch Police Department to determine whether the agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing, after “deeply concerning” discriminatory text messages were uncovered.

Dozens of virulent text messages in the group chats of Antioch police officers, many containing racist and homophobic slurs, were reported between 2019 and 2022, according to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office. Those texts were in a pair of reports dated March 27-March 28, from a larger investigation by the FBI and the DA first reported by the East Bay Times. 

In the texts, officers said they berated people because of their race, falsified evidence and brutalized Black and brown suspects. The messages were sent by 17 named officers of the 100-person Antioch police force, including the president of the Antioch police union. The county public defender has said that nearly half of the department was included in the text chains, and nobody said anything.

City leaders say more than 40% of the department’s 99 officers could be implicated in the scandal, and 38 are on paid leave. The current city manager was placed on leave during the process, as public outcry around the allegations rapidly grew.

Four people who say they were targeted by police officers who boasted about fabricating evidence and beating suspects filed a federal civil rights lawsuit for civil rights on April 19. They are represented by John Burris, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney known for his work exposing police brutality. A fifth plaintiff is suing on behalf of his father, who was shot and killed by two of the officers involved in the text scandal. 

Plaintiffs say in the 24-page complaint that Black and brown people began leaving Oakland's oppressive policing practices in the early 2000s and relocating to suburbs like Antioch, looking for better lives free from being targeted as criminals.

"Instead, these people were subjected to a systematic and intentional effort to repress their existence through discriminatory and violent policing," the plaintiffs say. "The victims complained about the conspiracy, spoken or unspoken, of abuse over the years. Their calls for justice and reform went unheard for years and years." They seek damages and a jury trial.

Under the California Constitution, the attorney general is authorized to conduct civil investigations into whether a law enforcement agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating state or federal law. Such an investigation is separate from local and federal investigations, and works to identify and potentially compel the correction of systemic violations of the constitutional rights of the community at large by a law enforcement agency. 

If Bonta’s office determines that unlawful activity or practices took place, he will also determine what actions are needed to ensure comprehensive corrective action takes place.

“It is our job to protect and serve all of our communities. Police departments are on the front lines of that fight every day as they work to safeguard the people of our state," Bonta said in a statement.

"However, where there are allegations of potentially pervasive bias or discrimination, it can undermine the trust that is critical for public safety and our justice system. It is our responsibility to ensure that we establish a culture of accountability, professionalism, and zero tolerance for hateful or racist behavior, on or off duty.”

Bonta said he has not made any determinations about specific complaints or the agency’s overall policies and practices. He encouraged anyone with information relevant to the investigation to contact his Civil Rights Enforcement Section. 

Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford promised full cooperation with Bonta's office and said new policies will be implemented including bias-free policing and training officers on cultural awareness. The Antioch Police Officers’ Association and the acting city manager and city attorney did not respond to requests for comment before press time. 

Bonta has in recent years made moves to demand accountability from law enforcement agencies accused of civil rights violations. He recently launched an investigation into complaints of excessive force at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, and assumed responsibility for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation regarding contracts awarded to a local nonprofit. Bonta also opened a pattern or practice investigation into the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and the Torrance Police Department, and in 2021 secured a stipulated judgment against the Bakersfield Police Department. 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Law, Regional

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