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Racist text scandal at Northern California police department at center of court hearing

Jul 20, 2023, 9:54 PM | Updated: Jul 21, 2023, 2:32 pm

FILE - A sign marks the exterior of the Antioch police headquarters in Antioch, Calif., on April 19...

FILE - A sign marks the exterior of the Antioch police headquarters in Antioch, Calif., on April 19, 2023. Racist police text messages containing slurs and images of gorillas will take center stage in a San Francisco Bay Area courtroom on Friday, July 21, 2023, as a judge weighs whether the messages violated a state law designed to stamp out racism in the criminal court system. (AP Photo/Terry Chea, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Terry Chea, File)

MARTINEZ, Calif. (AP) — A court hearing to determine whether Northern California police officers who traded racist text messages violated a state law aimed at eliminating racism in the criminal justice system began Friday, with up to eight officers expected to take the stand to speak about the scandal that has roiled the city in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Defense attorneys for four men charged with murder and attempted murder in a 2021 shooting subpoenaed the officers to testify about heavily redacted text messages made public in April by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office. The attorneys were expected to argue before Judge David Goldstein that their clients, two of them mentioned in the text 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.

Seventeen Antioch police officers have been named for sending texts that discuss falsifying evidence and beating up suspects, that make racist and homophobic remarks or use sexually explicit language. Most of the messages were sent in 2020 and 2021 and go far beyond the case up for discussion in court.

In addition to the officers who may testify Friday, five others who were subpoenaed have claimed they were injured on the job and are not medically cleared to testify.

Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford was also subpoenaed to testify, but Goldstein ruled Friday he did not need to appear because his testimony was not relevant to whether the officers sent the texts or showed racial bias when investigating and arresting the men on trial. Ford was not the police chief at the time.

Carmela Caramagno, attorney for one of the four suspects, argued that Ford’s testimony was critical so the court could get a broad feel for the internal workings of the department and devise an appropriate remedy.

Caramagno said she also wanted to ask Ford why he signed off on declarations stating that five officers had suffered an “industrial injury” and could not appear, when an investigator for the defense had seen some of them looking “quite healthy,” “having pool parties,” and “walking briskly.”

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

The hearing comes two days after Ford, who is Black, made a surprise announcement that he would retire next month. He leaves after only a year serving as interim and permanent police chief. He did not respond to emails requesting an interview.

Lawyers representing the eight other subpoenaed officers were also present in court Friday.

The four men represented by the defense attorneys were charged with murder and attempted murder in a March 2021 drive-by shooting that prosecutors say was gang-related. Goldstein in May threw out gang charges against the defendants after historical data showed county prosecutors disproportionately targeted Black people with enhancements leading to longer sentences.

Two of the defendants, Trent Allen and Terryon Pugh, were the subjects of some of the released text 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.

The embattled police department serves a racially diverse city of 115,000 residents about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of San Francisco.

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 over the text messages and in May the state attorney general’s office launched a civil rights investigation into the police department.

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Racist text scandal at Northern California police department at center of court hearing