Black mayor and police chief tasked with leading Antioch reform amid lawsuit over alleged racist policing

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(ANTIOCH, Calif.) — The mayor and police chief of Antioch, the California city facing an FBI investigation and a lawsuit over alleged civil rights violations by its police officers, agree on one thing – the police department has an issue with culture.

“Good people can exist in bad cultures,” Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe told ABC News. “We say, ‘oh, it’s just these individuals,’ And it’s like, no, it’s actually the culture. The culture is what allows this to happen because even good people who may be well intentioned but may have fear in reporting things don’t.”

Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford and Thorpe, two Black men, are tasked with reforming the city’s police department after the Contra County district attorney’s office released what it said were a series of racist, misogynistic and homophobic texts from a group chat containing at least 45 Antioch police officers last month.

The text messages, reviewed by ABC News, included admissions to civil rights violations and uses of overt violence against citizens.

“We have a lot of people who aren’t even aware of the history of police and how we even got here. So, you know, this is a thing that’s 400 years in the making,” said Ford, who became police chief in April 2022, on the backend of when the text messages were allegedly sent. “The institution of policing goes back to slavery. That is the first signs of what we now call police patrols.”

The Contra Costa district attorney’s office and the FBI have been engaged in a joint federal and state criminal investigation of Antioch and Pittsburg, California, police officers for a “broad range” of crimes of moral turpitude, according to documents obtained by ABC News from the DA’s office.

The two police departments and eight of their officers are being investigated by the FBI and DA, according to Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe.

The FBI and the city of Pittsburg did not immediately return ABC News’ request for a statement.

Text messages described as being between Antioch police officers from 2019 to 2022 were released on April 13 by the DA in a 21-page report. The DA’s office released a 14-page report with more text messages on April 17.

“I think that there are some segments of our community who have kind of an adoration towards the police department that’s almost religious,” Thorpe said. “Anytime you question, as if you questioned your church, people react in a way that’s very hostile because we have no right asking questions about the police department.”

Thorpe is referring to what he says are certain sections of the Antioch population who have pushed back against police reform and criticism against the Antioch police before and after the text messages were released.

In one of the text messages included in the DA’s report, an officer said they would offer a free steak dinner for anyone who would “40” the mayor, allegedly referring to less lethal launchers that shoot rubber bullets or bean bags, according to the DA’s report.

Thorpe pointed out a heated exchange he had with an Antioch citizen during a city council meeting on April 11, one day before the text messages were officially released by the DA. The text messages had already been leaked by an unknown source, according to the DA’s office.

“That is dog-whistle racism, an apologist for what’s absolutely wrong with this city. You want to go outside right now, let’s go,” Thorpe said to a resident, according to a video posted to YouTube by local blog Contra Costa News, after the resident suggested Thorpe be investigated for creating a hostile work environment and should have his text messages audited.

Thorpe told the resident, “I am sick and tired of being attacked by these people in this community apologizing for the racism that is going on in this community. You’re the problem!”

The resident in the exchange with Thorpe praised Ford and previous police chiefs, according to video of the encounter. Ford said he is familiar with the concept of police adoration.

“I think most of society with the exception of underserved communities, embrace police, for the simple reason they’ve had a positive relationship with the police,” Ford said. “Community policing isn’t born out of wealthy areas. Community policing is born out of underserved communities that historically have had adverse relations with police.”

According to Ford, Antioch’s population is currently 52% Black and Brown, whereas 30 years ago the Black and Brown population was around 10%.

“The city of Antioch needs and deserves and requires a functional police organization. They need that. That environment, it has some challenges,” Ford said. “Things change, dynamics change, crime changes, the social structure changes, the economic social structure changes.”

According to the Antioch police department, in a list of “Group A Crimes” that include homicide, rape, and aggravated assault, among other offenses, Antioch’s crime rate in 2022 dropped to 1,825 offenses from 2,248 in 2005.

Ford said he is open to federal oversight of the police department if that’s what’s recommended after the FBI and DA’s joint investigation. Both the mayor and the chief of police say they believe that reform needs to be done collectively with the help of the community playing a key role.

When Thorpe first saw the texts, he said he was shocked and disgusted. Ford described being disappointed and hurt after reading the messages. Thorpe claimed he will do his due diligence in his oversight of the police going forward.

“One thing that I have learned is that I’ve now worked with one, two, three chiefs, and they’ve all told me the exact same thing, which is, ‘my men and women would never do anything like this,"” Thorpe said. “I just can’t blindly say, ‘oh, yeah, whatever this person’s saying must be the case,’ because I did that before and look where we’re at today.”

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