5 things to know about the police scandals in Antioch and Pittsburg

5 things to know about the police scandals in Antioch and Pittsburg

The indictments Thursday of several Antioch and Pittsburg police officers marked a new, momentous phase in burgeoning scandals that have prompted protests in East Contra Costa County, the dismissals of numerous criminal cases and a sprawling state civil rights investigation.

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Dozens of headlines about the scandals have been published since the Bay Area News Group first reported in September 2022 that a federal grand jury had convened, highlighting rampant racism throughout the Antioch Police Department’s ranks and numerous alleged misdeeds by officers in Pittsburg and Antioch. Each new development has revealed new fault lines in this part of the Bay Area — particularly in Antioch, a community whose Black population has swelled in recent years, while its police force has remained primarily white.

Here’s a primer on the impact of the scandals embroiling East Contra Costa County, and how these communities arrived at his moment:

The FBI investigation began with a college-degree scam

The FBI and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office announced their investigation in March 2022, saying only that they were examining “crimes of moral turpitude.”

But all of it — the criminal charges, the revelation of racist texts, the lawsuits and the protests — began with concerns about police officers cheating their way into fake college degrees, sources told this news organization.

The reason may have been a simple desire for more money: Under union contracts, officers in Antioch and Pittsburg get pay bumps ranging from 2.5 to 10 percent for earning higher education degrees. Investigators suspect officers recruited a woman to take online college courses and pass tests in their names, as this news organization first reported in December.

At least two Pittsburg police officers have since paid back tens of thousands of dollars in bonus money — each of them submitting near-identical notes denying wrongdoing and offering the money back to avoid the “perception” that they did anything wrong.

Yet this list of alleged crimes by officers continued to grow to include premeditated civil rights violations, falsifying reports, using and distributing steroids, using cocaine and accepting bribes while on patrol.

The FBI later uncovered text messages that showed widespread — and unchecked — racism throughout much of the Antioch Police Department

Perhaps no development proved as searing as the discovery of reams of unabashedly racist and homophobic text messages sent between dozens of Antioch police officers.

In message after message, officers described Black people as “gorillas,” “monkeys” and “water buffalo,” while relishing their ability to say the N-word in front of their superiors without fear of discipline. They also used numerous slurs aimed at Latinos, mentioned a joke about one officer acting like a “Jew” by filing his taxes and included various homophobic slurs, the documents say.

In the process, officers boasted about violating residents’ civil rights, making up phony confessions to bolster their cases and mercilessly beating suspects. In one instance, Antioch police officer Eric Rombough recalled kicking one suspect’s head “like a f—— field goal,” before adding, “Gotta stop kicking n—–s in their head.”

“I’m already good at racial profiling,” Rombough texted fellow Antioch officer Jonathan Adams on July 14, 2021, according to the records.

“I’m a trained expert. Learned from the best in the business,” Adams replied 20 minutes later, the report says.

As of July, half of the department’s sworn members — roughly 40 of 90 officers —were not working. That number includes 21 officers who are in some way connected to the FBI investigation, the racist text message or some other misconduct, sources say, while the rest were on some other form of leave.

The scandals have spurred numerous probes and lawsuits:

In mid-May, California Attorney General Rob Bonta opened a sprawling civil rights investigation into the police department, noting that “we’ve seen data that shows spikes in excessive force in Antioch, more than other police departments nearby and in the region.”

It represents just one of numerous — potentially unprecedented — inquiries and lawsuits underway in East Contra Costa County.

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors recently approved $2.2 million to hire attorneys for a sweeping probe into whether thousands of criminal cases should be re-tried, dropped or expunged due to Antioch officers’ actions. And the scale of that review could be larger than anything ever seen in California’s history. Already, several cases have been dismissed.

In April, John Burris — one of the attorneys famous for suing Oakland during the infamous “Riders” police brutality scandal of the early 2000s — filed a new sprawling lawsuit against Antioch claiming the texts offered proof of racist, bigoted policing.

It’s happening in a community with a complicated, often-painful past

The cascading scandals come as the California Delta city of Antioch has undergone immense changes in recent years.

Like several suburban cities on the fringes of Oakland and Richmond, Antioch saw a swell of Black residents migrate to the area in the early part of this century, seeking a reprieve from the rising home prices and gentrification of those larger Bay Area urban cores. Yet as of mid-May, just five Black officers served on the city’s police force of roughly 90 — including a police chief who has since retired.

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They all work for a department with a history of concerns about racist policing.

Time and again, Antioch police have engaged in questionable uses of force – highlighting a department mired in 20th-century policing tactics. As far back as the mid-2000s, the city faced a class-action lawsuit alleging officers frequently used “Jim Crow tactics.”

But more recent records obtained by this newspaper show that over the last several years, Antioch officers unleashed their dogs without warning and against people suspected only of nonviolent crimes. They’ve employed dangerous neck holds as restraints. And they’ve used heavy flashlights as clubs – all with seeming impunity.

The scandals have roiled Antioch’s City Hall and the highest reaches of its police department:

Residents have protested against the police department, calling for mass firings and decrying racist tactics they say go back years.

Even Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe appears to have been a target of the officers’ racist texts — with officers having offered a prime rib dinner to anyone who shot him with a non-lethal sponge bullet. Thorpe has gone on to pillory the officers who allegedly sent those texts, and has blasted the local police union’s attorney, and emotions have boiled over at City Council meetings.

Yet it remains unclear who will lead the Antioch Police Department out of perhaps its most turbulent stretch in history. Chief Steven Ford announced his retirement in July, ending a short tenure that began with optimism that he could turn the department around.