On Aug. 21, 2020, two Antioch officers who had been called to aid neighboring cops released a police dog to bite a fleeing suspect. The officer handling the dog later lamented to his partner that the suspect “didn’t get what he deserved” in the glare of all the body cameras worn by the other department’s officers.
“We would have f—ed him up more,” the officer, Morteza Amiri, messaged his partner, Devon Wenger, who replied in agreement: “That’s why I don’t like body cams.”
The exchange, recounted in an indictment Thursday charging both officers, along with Antioch officer Eric Rombough, with civil rights violations, begs a difficult question for city and department leaders:
Did the police department’s long resistance to the kind of reforms adopted far earlier in other Bay Area cities — Antioch didn’t require body cams until 2021 — enable the brutal behavior that has now led to a sweeping crisis of corruption? And if Antioch’s problems run deeper than the bad actions of some allegedly dirty cops, what will it take to clean this police department up?
Criminal justice experts say the process could be a long and difficult road for a city that saw six current and former cops indicted Thursday, and has dozens more on leave after a related scandal over racist text messages.
“My first question would be, who was in charge, what did they do, what did they know, and why did they do what they did?” said Howard Jordan, the former Oakland police chief who now runs third-party police misconduct investigations across California. “It’s got to start at the top and trickle downhill.”
Former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan looks on during a news conference in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
Antioch, a mid-sized Delta city of 115,000 with a 115-member police force, was among the last in the Bay Area to equip its officers with body-worn cameras. Criminal justice reformers and police alike have hailed the technology as a means of objectively documenting use of force by officers and increasing accountability for their handling of encounters with the public.
The Oakland Police Department — which has been under federal monitoring since the Rider scandal in 2000 over abuses by four officers in a gang enforcement detail — began adopting body cameras more than a decade ago. Within a few years, city leaders were crediting the cameras with reducing use of force and complaints.
By 2016, police in nearly two-thirds of Bay Area departments were using body cameras or were approved for their use. But Antioch resisted, citing a lack of funds for the department. The department finally approved body-worn police cameras in March 2021; Mayor Lamar Thorpe, who was elected in 2020 on a police reform agenda, said at the time that the policy change was “10 years overdue.”
Mayor Lamar Thorpe listens to speakers during a special City Council meeting at City Hall in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
It was among a series of reforms that department leaders largely resisted as the corruption within the department’s ranks was festering largely unseen. Those reforms — which city leaders ultimately adopted — include enhanced officer training, increased accountability and transparency, and improved hiring and screening practices.
Earlier deployment of the cameras might have provided additional evidence in disputes over use of force — the three officers indicted for alleged civil rights violations are also charged with falsifying their reports, apparently to obscure or justify improperly violent behavior, and destroying records, including an incident report where force was used on a suspect.
The mounting scope of problems plaguing the police department suggests body cameras are just a start on what is needed to weed out bad behavior in the department.
Thursday’s arrests included a total of five current and former Antioch officers and a former community service officer, on a host of different federal charges spread across four different indictments. Two are charged with steroid distribution, one with obstructing a murder investigation, three others with committing police violence for sport, and six others for an alleged wire fraud scheme involving incentive pay for college degrees.
On Friday the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office charged four Antioch police officers and a former officer from Pittsburg in a purported conspiracy to drop traffic tickets in exchange for bribes of food and liquor.
But dozens more officers received racist text messages from their colleagues, which included some officers boasting about using slurs in front of their supervisors with impunity.
Within the police department, consequences for excessive force appear to have been few and far between. This news organization asked for Antioch police records detailing incidents where officers seriously hurt or killed people, as well as records of discipline. The city turned over documentation of dozens of incidents involving serious force — but on only one occasion did an officer face discipline, in the case of a cop who was allegedly tipping off local drug dealers to police investigations, and was later fired and criminally charged.
Among the incidents revealed in those records that did not result in discipline were at least two involving Amiri. In April 2019, Amiri used his police dog to arrest Jessie Cardell during a burglary investigation and struck Cardell in the back with a flashlight. Cardell received stitches on his arm from the dog bite, but the department deemed Amiri’s use of force in that case “consistent with agency best practices.”
Two days later, Amiri used his police dog to arrest Vance Gattis, who was riding in a car that Amiri stopped for having tinted front windows, and Gattis was hit with flashlights and stun guns during the encounter. Records didn’t indicate the use of force was reviewed.
“You can have all the body-worn cameras in the world, but if no one is watching what the officers are doing then it’s useless,” Jordan said. “A department needs to establish some sort of audit process, a frontline supervisor, do a randomly selected audit, write a report to the chief. … Otherwise, it sends a very, very bad message to the officers and the community.”
Responding to the department’s decision to implement body cameras, Rombough messaged Amiri, “can’t wait to retire,” to which Amiri replied, “over it.”
Antioch and its police force have been struggling for years to adapt to a major demographic shift with a Black population that has doubled in the last two decades. Today, just one in three residents are White, but an overwhelming majority of police officers are. Black residents have complained for years of being subjected to racism and discrimination including by police.
Police use of force has led to costly settlements for Antioch. The controversial 2017 restraint death of 32-year-old Humberto Martinez led to a federal lawsuit and a $7.3 million settlement. In another case, the city paid $180,000 to a man who complained he was left concussed after being punched by officers.
The department has been through a series of leadership changes, complicating reform efforts. Steven Ford, who took over as chief in early 2022 as the first outsider to lead the department since 2006, left this month after less than a year.
David Schultz, political science and legal studies professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has studied the costs of aggressive police uses of force — more than $2 billion nationally in 15 large cities since 2010 — said this week there’s “not a lot of evidence that check writing is doing anything” to reduce police violence.
“The payouts become a cost of doing business,” Schultz said.
John Burris, a Bay Area lawyer who was involved in the Oakland Riders lawsuit and has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Antioch’s police department, said this week the department should be put under federal oversight, similar to Oakland’s two decades ago.
Canice Prendergast, an economist with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, studied federal monitoring of Los Angeles police following the Rampart scandal in 2000 and found officers responded to increased oversight with a “drive and wave” pullback from enforcement. The lesson, he said in an interview this week, is that fixing a badly broken department is long and hard.
“It’s very hard to change police officer behavior very quickly to be what you want it to be,” Prendergast said.
“For a lot of police departments, it’s institutional culture,” Schultz said. “I don’t see too many magic bullets out there in changing their culture.”