August 25, 2023
From Popular Resistance

Acts of police brutality and other forms of misconduct are common throughout the country.

The East Bay Area of California is exceptional only in that some officers have been indicted and charged with a variety of offenses.

If you think the San Francisco Bay Area is “woke,” you probably don’t know about East Contra Costa County, in the East Bay, where nearly half the City of Antioch’s police department are now on leave for police misconduct that includes exchanging racist, homophobic, and misogynist text messages, some of which include the n-word and references to Black people as gorillas and monkeys. In one instance it was revealed that one cop had sent another a text image depicting the Black police chief, who had been on the job for about a year, as a gorilla . The chief resigned shortly thereafter without saying why.

According to the FBI and the US Attorney’s office in San Francisco, a federal grand jury has indicted officers from Antioch and neighboring Pittsburg, for charges including conspiracy to violate civil rights; civil rights violations; wire fraud; distribution of steroids; destruction, alteration, and falsification of records; and obstruction of justice.

Antioch is a suburb of only 114,00, Pittsburg a suburb of 77,000, but police departments throughout the San Francisco Bay Area have been the subject of many investigations for police brutality and other forms of misconduct over the years. Twenty years after the resolution of the Oakland Police scandal detailed in the book “The Riders Come Out at Night ,” that department remains under a federal consent decree, and Antioch likely will be soon.

The situation in Antioch has received ongoing press coverage from the East Bay Times , ABC , Fox News , the San Jose Mercury News , the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN , and other outlets.

I spoke to KPFA Radio journalist and anti-police brutality activist Frank Sterling, who was himself attacked by Antioch police in 2009 when he answered the door in response to a noise complaint about a party he was having. Police beat him with aluminum flashlights, broke his nose, and left a gash in his skull that had to be stapled in a hospital emergency room. Frank received a financial settlement after winning two lengthy legal actions, one being a case against him for assaulting a police officer, the other being his own police brutality case.

This hardly makes him a favorite with the Antioch Police Department, but that hasn’t inhibited his ongoing anti-police misconduct activism with “Reimagine Antioch .”

Ann Garrison: Frank, I’ve been following the Antioch Police Department’s transgressions for years and reported on it here in Black Agenda Report back in February 2022, when you were on trial for the second time for allegedly assaulting a police officer after they tackled you, tased you, and held you down on the ground at a protest. That charge was dismissed, wasn’t it?

Frank Sterling: Yes.

AG: Can you give us your best summary of the latest Antioch police misconduct saga?

FS: Well, this has a long history, as you know, but we could start by going back to the time of the George Floyd murder and ensuing protests in 2020. At about the same time, a young man named Angelo Quinto was killed here in very similar circumstances, in compression and control holds, with his arms and his legs behind his back.

AG: So you started protesting that?

FS: Yes, Angelo’s death was a catalyst that drew more people into our movement, but a lot of us have been out here for over a decade talking about how these terrible police officers brutalize people. At that time we didn’t have body cameras or cameras in the cars, so a lot of crimes were being committed off camera. Often it was just my word or others’ against the word of officers who were assumed to have the moral high ground and were most often believed.

So we really stepped up our protests after the George Floyd and Angelo Quinto killings. Between then and now the Contra Costa County District Attorney announced that the Antioch Police Department was under investigation by the FBI and the Department of Justice, which led to the multiple indictments that you mentioned in your introduction.

At the same time, in April 2023, a slew of violent, racist, homophobic and sexist text messages by Antioch police officers surfaced, as a result of inquiries made by a Contra Costa County public defender relying on the California Racial Justice Act for All that was signed into law at the end of September 2022. The public defender also used the act to have gang enhancements lifted against her clients, arguing that their application had been racially discriminatory. “Gang enhancement” means the charge that crimes committed were part of gang activity, which makes them more serious crimes with more severe punishments.

In the bigger investigation that the Department of Justice and the FBI had underway, they probably would not even have seen these text messages if it wasn’t for this public defender digging deeper into her client’s allegations.

The text messages reveal that police officers bragged about violence they committed against the community, using “less-than-lethal force” when it was unnecessary, especially on the unhoused population. They talked about violating civil rights and of course there were the racist texts including gorilla and monkey memes.

They revealed one case in which off-duty police officers got together after work and hunted down an unhoused man whom one officer believed was stealing his mail. They beat him up one night, kicked his ass all over the place, then came after him another night, off duty again, agreeing that the first one who found him would get a drink and a donut. When they got him, one held the barrel of a gun in his mouth while accusing him of stealing his mail and trying to open accounts under his name. Then he bragged that this was not against the law because he was doing a public service. The texts also exposed police involved in the illegal sale of steroids.

It also came out that a group of police officers had created phony records of degrees or other professional qualifications that they hadn’t earned in order to get promotions and pay raises that came with them.

These are indictments, not convictions, so the meaning of the texts is still alleged, but it’s going to be harder and harder to describe them as allegations since they’re there in black and white.

About half of the Antioch Police Department is now on leave as a result, not because they all sent these text messages but because many received but failed to report them. This scandal is also extending to neighboring police departments including Pittsburg and Brentwood.

Some upper officers were implicated in the racist texting, so it’s possible that those of lower rank didn’t know who to report them to.

So fast-forward through all that to last week, when the FBI and the DOJ raided a bunch of officers’ homes here in Antioch, and also in Pittsburg , and actually in Hawaii and some other state where they have dispersed because about 45 of them are on some sort of paid or unpaid leave. And a bunch of them are also retiring. So that’s where we’re at now.

AG: What’s your next move with Reimagine Antioch?

FS:  We are going out to the courthouse on Friday, August 25th. We’re going to be out there for the second hearing on applying the California Racial Justice Act for All to the Antioch police.

We also have an action planned for September to demand that the Antioch Police Officers Association (APOA) be disbanded and that our interim Chief of Police denounce the APOA and resign if he’s a member. We’re not sure whether he’s a member of the union since he’s the chief.

We feel that the APOA is totally corrupted. Their statement about the racist texts, the DOJ indictments, or the arrests of nine of their officers is simply defensive. It does not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

AG: Won’t they just have to create a new union?

FS: Yeah they will, but the existing union is so totally corrupt that it has to be disbanded and reconstituted, hopefully with new officers. And they need to get rid of their attorney who does nothing but defend these bad cops.

AG: What is Reimagine Antioch doing to reimagine policing and public safety?

FS: What we’re doing out here is taking advantage of this once in a lifetime moment—where the police are exposed for their true selves in these text messages—to rethink public safety. Our District One City Councilor Misha Torres-Walker is on the case. She’s my representative and I worked for her campaign by hitting the streets and knocking on doors.

She has opened a new department called the Department of Public Safety and Community Resources . What we want is money to be diverted from the Police Department to this other Department of Public Safety and Community Resources, where we’re doing things that will lessen the need for police.

One example is the Angelo Quinto Community Response Team . And that is something that was won after Angelo Quinto was killed by police who more or less crushed him in a mental health crisis. Now you can call 911 and request the Community Response Team instead of the police in mental health and domestic violence cases. We have caring mental health professionals, culturally competent people to engage with people in distress rather than just putting them face down and handcuffing them. Sometimes they may wrap them in a restraining suit.

So that’s kind of our other hope, that we’re going to fund this other office and reexamine public safety in the bigger picture, beyond policing.

Police usually respond to crime, but they don’t prevent crime. So we’re looking to prevent crime before it happens.

Another example is the mayor’s apprenticeship program, which works in some of our most challenged areas—what we call the Sycamore Corridor—where you can see people hanging out on the corners, you know, random groups of people rolling dice, double-parked cars, people hanging out. The mayor’s apprenticeship program went into these communities, and got people who were struggling with formerly being incarcerated, struggling to find meaningful employment and put them into an apprenticeship program working for the City of Antioch Public Works.

So they got to go out and apprentice with mentors from the Public Works Department, which bolstered our Public Works and offered tracks into employment. They have a chance to apply for jobs and get more training.

AG: This sounds great.

FS: The first cohort of that group, just graduated. In fact, I played the graduation ceremony on the second half of “Full Circle” on KPFA the other day. So that’s another way that we’re trying to reimagine public safety.

Before, the cops would just pick these guys up and take them to jail, and then they’d get back on the streets going nowhere. Well, now the apprenticeship program is picking them up instead.

Basically, this means arms embracing you, instead of arresting you, trying to give you a head start to get you going in a new direction.

And they’re now working on other ways to reduce crime through intervention before it happens.

AG: Great stuff, Frank. Sounds like it could become a model for other cities.

FS: We hope so, but there’s still a lot more work to be done.