ANTIOCH -- Civil rights attorney John Burris on Thursday announced a federal lawsuit against the city of Antioch and members of the police department, the latest turn in the racist texting scandal embroiling the department.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five people who claim they or their family member were targeted in the racist and homophobic texts and by other misconduct from officers of a department that "is run amok," Burris said at a press conference Thursday morning outside the Antioch Police Department.
The suit seeks punitive and exemplary damages as well as federal oversight and court monitoring of the police department for civil rights compliance.
Last week, the FBI and Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office issued a report that details the content of the texts sent among officers, including those in leadership positions. The texts involved racist tropes, frequent use of the "n" word, homophobia, and bragging about assaulting suspects during arrests.
Some 45 officers, nearly half of the department, are involved in the texting scandal, according to the Contra Costa County Public Defender's Office.
"I've never seen the pervasive form of racial bigotry that was communicated amongst these officers as if it were a cup of coffee," said Burris in a press conference outside the Antioch Police Department. "And some of the things they said were so horrific that it truly made me cringe to think that these are the very people who were supposed to be serving this community. Knowing what I know now, this community probably should have been more afraid of the police than the gangsters or the criminals that were in their communities, because these were criminals."
The Antioch case is hauntingly familiar to Oakland's infamous "Riders" case. Burris along with attorney Jim Chanin represented 119 plaintiffs who sued the city of Oakland in the early 2000s over allegations of brutality and falsification of evidence by a group of officers who called themselves The Riders.
Years later, OPD remains under the watchful eyes of a federal monitor.
Burris said what was most egregious about the texting scandal is that there were supervisors, including sergeants and lieutenants, included in many of the group texts who did nothing to stop the behavior.
"Unfortunately, they're the ones who are supposed to call into question and to prevent this from happening. But they did not. So they were part of the conspiracy," said Burris. "If the supervisors are involved in the conduct, what hope was there for any of the people in this community? Because that is who they're supposed to go to, to sergeants, lieutenants and these same people in internal affairs. And so what we have is a department that is totally corrupted racially."
After Burris' initial remarks at the press conference, several Antioch citizens spoke to reporters who said they or their family members were targeted by Antioch police officers; they detailed claims of harassment, physical beatings, and even being robbed of cash and other possessions by officers.
On Tuesday, the Antioch City Council voted to audit the department's internal affairs unit, its hiring and promotional practices, and department culture. District Attorney Diana Becton said she was reviewing cases involving the officers for potential dismissal or resentencing. It's unclear how many cases are at stake.
The existence of the text messages became known last month as a result of an ongoing federal probe into Antioch and Pittsburg police officers. The FBI — which is investigating alleged fraud, bribery, drug distribution and civil rights violations related to the use of force in the department — found the messages after agents served search warrants on a number of officers' homes.
Federal agents also showed up at the police department, seizing phones and other personal items.
On April 7, the court ordered the DA's Office to disclose redacted investigative reports to defense attorneys representing clients in a felony criminal case.
The reports did not identify the races of the officers who sent the text messages, and none have yet been charged with a crime.
The messages disclosed to date were sent largely in 2020 and 2021. Sgt. Rick Hoffman, president of the Antioch Police Officers Association, is named as sending communications. The association did not respond to requests for comment.
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