California court will consider anti-discrimination law in hearing over racist texts by officers

21 July 2023

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A judge was expected on Friday to consider whether Northern California police officers who exchanged racist text messages violated a state law aimed at stamping out racism in the criminal justice system.

A group of Antioch Police Department officers have been asked to testify in a San Francisco Bay Area courtroom on heavily redacted text messages made public in April by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office that also used derogatory, homophobic and sexually explicit language, with officers bragging about falsifying evidence and beating up suspects.

Defense attorneys were expected to argue before Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge David Goldstein that their clients, two of them mentioned in released messages, were unfairly targeted based on their race. The state’s Racial Justice Act prohibits the state from pursuing or securing criminal convictions or sentences on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.

Goldstein threw out gang charges against all four defendants in May after historical data showed county prosecutors disproportionately targeted Black people with enhancements leading to longer sentences.

Five of the subpoenaed officers who traded texts are not expected to attend Friday because they are injured and out on leave, the East Bay Times reported Thursday. The news outlet obtained declarations signed by Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford swearing the officers have not been cleared by their doctors to attend the court hearing.

Ford, who is Black, also received a subpoena and announced two days ago he would retire next month. He leaves after only a year serving as interim and permanent police chief. Ford did not give a reason for his retirement and did not respond to emails requesting an interview.

“It’s just disappointing,” Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe said. “I know he believed in changing hearts and minds, but then you have people talking that kind of garbage.”

Defense attorneys who subpoenaed the officers represent four men charged with murder and attempted murder in a March 2021 drive-by shooting that prosecutors say was gang-related.

Two of the defendants, Trent Allen and Terryon Pugh, were the subjects of some of the released messages. Officers joked about kicking their heads and shooting them in the neck and buttocks. They also shared photos of Allen and Pugh injured in their hospital beds.

Mathew Martinez, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said the officers were issued subpoenas so they could explain in court why they sent the texts. But “they’re all unavailable, indefinitely,” he said.

The embattled police department serves a racially diverse city of 115,000 residents about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of San Francisco. Officials have named at least 17 officers who sent text messages, including the president of the Antioch police union.

The text messages came out as part of an ongoing joint investigation launched in March 2022 by the FBI and the Contra Costa district attorney into a broad range of potential offenses by officers with the Antioch and nearby Pittsburg police departments.

The city faces a federal civil rights lawsuit and in May the state attorney general’s office launched a civil rights investigation into the police department.

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