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These California police officers have created a scandal. They sent racist texts

Kiora Hansen and Della Currie protest against racism by Antioch police officers at a rally in front of the police department on Tuesday.
Sandhya Dirks/NPR
Kiora Hansen and Della Currie protest against racism by Antioch police officers at a rally in front of the police department on Tuesday.

Warning: This story includes quotations with racist and vulgar language as well as descriptions of violent attacks.

Kathryn Wade marched up to the microphone in the city council chambers before the meeting had even started with something to say. Wade is no stranger to the City Council in Antioch, Calif. She's been coming here to talk and yell about the Antioch Police Department (APD) and their treatment of Black people for the past decade, since she was just one of a small handful of residents speaking up.

Now, on this early Tuesday evening in April, she was far from alone.

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"Shut it all down," Wade screamed across the packed room.

She was talking about the police department of this suburban Northern California town, about 45 minutes northeast of Oakland.

Antioch sits in the middle of a storm of scandal after the release of violent, racist, homophobic and sexist text messages by the city's police officers.

The disturbing texts came to light during an investigation by the FBI and the local District Attorney's office into alleged misconduct by police in Antioch and the neighboring city of Pittsburg, Calif. Some of the issues being investigated include violent and excessive use of police dogs and eliciting false confessions.

Earlier this month, the District Attorney's office released two reports detailing the contents of multiple text message exchanges written by 17 officers from various time periods between 2019 and 2022. They include two texts from Rick Hoffman, the president of Antioch's police union.

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But far more officers were included on the text chains, according to a letter sent by the Chief Public Defender of Contra Costa County, Ellen McDonnell to the county's District Attorney, Diana Becton. According to McDonnell, so far 45 officers — almost half of the entire department — received the texts and did nothing. At least 16 of those "are in leadership roles at APD as detectives, sergeants, and lieutenants," McDonnell wrote.

"You're going to have to listen," Wade cried out in the council chambers. Her words were directed at the councilmembers, Mayor Lamar Thorpe, and police chief Steven Ford, who joined the department last year, after most of the text messages were sent.

"You're going to have to absorb a lot of people's pain," Wade told them.

Including her pain.

Wade's son, Malad Baldwin, was 22-years-old when he was a victim of police violence, she claims. In 2014, he was asleep in Wade's car parked outside their house, when police dragged him from the vehicle and beat him, according to a lawsuit filed against the city and the officers. In the complaint, Wade said she came out of the house to see them striking her son, and that they beat him until he lost consciousness. The suit claims that police slammed Baldwin into the sidewalk, spread his legs and repeatedly struck him there. "They hit him right in between his butt cheeks," Wade said.

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Antioch police claim Baldwin was drunk and combative. He was charged with resisting arrest, but those charges were dropped. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with officers admitting no wrongdoing.

Wade says the beating changed her son. He was depressed, riddled with anxiety, unable to hold down a job. That was the first of several incidents between Baldwin and Antioch police. Wade says it was as if they were stalking him, harassing him every where he went.

In 2020, Baldwin died by suicide. Wade faults Antioch police for her son's mental trauma, and ultimately for his death.

Antioch police have not yet responded to requests for comment regarding subsequent interactions with Baldwin.

Now, Wade says, "It feels like my baby died all over again."

That's because Baldwin was mentioned in the text messages.

"I knew from the beginning that it was a racist city"

Officers joked about Baldwin's claims that they beat him on his backside, and about the department using deadly force. "But we kill more Mexicans than anything else. So Blacks can feel safe," one officer texted. "Sorry. Reverse that," he followed up a minute later.

Those are some of the tamer texts released.

You'll hear people talk about "old Antioch" — which refers to the place it used to be: White, working class, a sundown town, where people of color knew not to be after dark.

But all that has changed. Antioch is now 36% white, 35% Latino, and 20% Black, according to the 2020 census. The shift happened both gradually and quickly. At first, Black people and other people of color moved here for the reasons everyone else did: bigger houses, better schools, a shot at the suburban American dream.

In the past decade or so, gentrification and exploding housing costs in cities such as San Francisco and Oakland drove displaced poor people here — especially people of color. As Oakland's Black population shrank, Antioch's grew.

This new great migration is happening across America, changing the suburbs that have long been thought of as white space into the most diverse places in the nation.

On this Tuesday night, the special council city meeting business was narrowly focused on addressing the ballooning scandal resulting from the racist texts, with the council voting to audit the department's internal affairs division, its hiring and promotional practices, and an equity audit.

Residents gather at an Antioch, Calif., city council meeting to share their experiences of harassment and racism at the hands of local police and demand change.
/ Sandhya Dirks/NPR
/
Sandhya Dirks/NPR
Residents gather at an Antioch, Calif., city council meeting to share their experiences of harassment and racism at the hands of local police and demand change.

Those all passed easily, but the meeting, like the one the week before, was about more than just policy. People needed to speak.

Almost 100 people protested in front of the police station ahead of the council meeting, walking a stone's throw away to city hall.

"Antioch didn't look like this, but it does now," said Timothy Manly. "When everybody was fixing their issues in the '6os, Antioch didn't think that they'd have to." In the '60s, Antioch was almost entirely white. "You're just reaping what you sowed."

Some people told stories of their own encounters with Antioch police, others spoke of the experiences of children and loved ones.

"These individuals that have spoken tonight are victims of police brutality, they are victims of crimes," public defender Ellen McDonnell said when it was her turn at the dais. "The community and our clients have been sounding the alarm about your police department for years and years and years."

Shayla Bowers talked about how important it was to name the officers. "Our Black and brown people, as you see in this room, we got names, we got banners, we are public about our deaths in our community," she said. "We need to be public about these police officers that are doing harm in our community."

"I knew from the beginning that it was a racist city," said Gigi Crowder, the executive director of the NAMI Contra Costa, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and an Antioch resident. "But then I believed that there was a possibility for change."

She believed that, she told the council, because it wasn't just demographics that were shifting, the balance of power was too.

"I'll bury that N*&*er in my fields"

For a long time the city's leadership did not reflect its diversifying population. That changed in 2020, with a Black majority emerging on the five-person city council, including Mayor Thorpe.

"In 2020, when all I asked for was a community to look at policies to do police reform," Thorpe reminded the council chambers, "people lost their collective minds."

"If they could've hung me from the highest tree in Antioch they would have," he said.

A group of pro-police, almost entirely white residents, many affiliated with a private Facebook group called "Back the Blue," flooded the then-online-only council meetings, pushing back against the new majority, and any suggestions of police reform. They mounted a recall campaign against Thorpe, which failed to gather enough signatures.

After the December 2020 death of Angelo Quinto in the custody of Antioch police, the council voted for police to wear body cameras, a reform many police departments passed over a decade ago, but Antioch had long resisted.

In one of the released texts body cameras are mentioned. Discussing an arrest made with the neighboring police department of Pittsburg, Calif., whose officers did have cameras, an officer wrote: "If Pitt didn't have all those body cams and that was us ... we would have f&*ked him up more."

Another police officer, Devon Wenger, responded, "I agree. That's why I don't like body cameras."

In a statement to ABC News Wenger denied accusations of racism, pointing out that he only sent that one text. "Out of both released reports, the initial 21-page-report and the secondary 14-page report, I just simply said I do not like body cams," he told them.

"To put it bluntly, that's not racist."

Wenger also suggested that the investigation into Antioch police may have been "corrupted."

NPR's attempts to speak to the officers named in the DA's report were either unsuccessful or declined.

Mayor Thorpe shows up in the police text messages too.

"I'll buy someone a prime rib dinner at House of prime rib to 40 that mfr during the protest today," one officer texted, referring to "the potential use of a .40mm less lethal launcher being utilized" on the mayor, the District Attorney's report explains. A .40mm weapon is a kind of gun that fires hard foam projectiles. Their use against protesters and for crowd control, as well as their designation as somehow less lethal, has been criticized.

That text was sent in June 2020, during the heart of the national uprising over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Another text referred to Floyd as "the gorilla who died."

The text messages continuously refer to Black people as "gorillas" and "monkeys," and officers repeatedly texted photos of gorillas to each other.

A young activist, Shagoofa Khan, prominent in organizing protests in Antioch, including a hunger strike in front of the police station, was also mentioned in the texts. She "looks like an Arabian nights cum dumpster," a sergeant wrote.

The same sergeant, Josh Evans, texted in reference to the arrest of a Black suspect, "I'll bury that N*&*er in my fields."

Four minutes later he texted again. "And yes... it was a hard R on purpose."

"I'm only stopping them cuz they black"

The texts aren't just filled with racist and sexist vitriol, they also seem to suggest possible civil rights violations.

On a group chat, one officer asks the others what they are doing. The response from another, "violating civil rights."

Racial profiling was a "modus operandi with respect to these officers," civil rights lawyer John Burris claimed at a news conference on April 20 announcing a federal lawsuit against the city, the police department, and individual officers on behalf of a growing list of victims.

"They would stop people just because they were Black, they would harass them, they would search them, and ultimately arrest them if they thought they could get away with it," he alleged.

"They didn't want any kind of oral, written, videotape of the confession," he went on. "They wanted the confession to be such that they could make up the confession and convince their superiors that the person has confessed."

Burris said he was also disturbed by text messages that suggested officers took pleasure in using violent force, especially on Black people.

Burris' clients include those who say they were repeatedly targeted and falsely accused by Antioch police officers.

Adam Carpenter, one of the plaintiffs, was arrested for possession of a firearm by four of the officers named in the scandal.

"I have been harassed and targeted and railroaded by the Antioch police department for the last 10 years," Carpenter told a gathered scrum of reporters.

According to the lawsuit, in the year before his arrest he was stopped by the same officers almost 10 times.

Carpenter spent 11 months in jail, before all charges against him were dropped. The complaint alleges that one of the officers involved in Carpenter's arrest texted, "I'm only stopping them cuz they black." It alleges another wrote, "I sometimes just say people gave me a full confession when they didn't. gets filed easier."

"They have basically ruined my life," Carpenter said. "I've not been able to get a job, and I'm a journeyman by trade, a painter."

"It's been devastating, like living in hell."

Others shared similar stories, claiming patterns of harassment, planted evidence, and manufactured confessions.

The Antioch city attorney as well as current and former police chiefs have not yet responded to requests for comment on the litigation.

Michael Rains, a former police officer and lawyer who represents some, but not all, of the officers, responded with a brief statement. "I understand this story is newsworthy on a number of fronts," he wrote, "including, from my perspective, whether the due process and privacy rights of officers were abandoned by the Court and District Attorney." But he added that he has advised his clients not to speak publicly, and is himself not granting interviews "at the present time."

Current Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford, who is Black, came from San Francisco police to lead the department a year ago. At the first council meeting after the scandal broke, he said that he is trying not to reform, but to reframe policing there. "We're going to shift how things are done structurally, how they are done politically, how they are done administratively," he said.

No one can tell yet just how many criminal cases might hang in the balance, after these revelations. Burris, alongside others including two U.S. Congressmen, are calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Antioch Police Department.

Carpenter said in a strange way, he was grateful to read all the texts. At least they confirmed for everyone else what he'd been experiencing for so long.

It has been the same for Kathryn Wade. Reading the texts may have reopened the wound of her son's death, but at least, she says, "Everything is out in the open, now."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is a National Correspondent covering race and identity for NPR.