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Lawsuit accuses California officers who allegedly sent racist texts of 'malicious treatment'

A lawyer representing the plaintiffs said the Antioch Police Department had "run amok" with "open racism and brutality."

Five people accused officers of a Northern California police department of "malicious treatment" in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, nearly two weeks after an investigative report alleged dozens of officers sent and received racist and derogatory text messages.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for Northern California, alleges that six of the Antioch police officers identified in the report compiled by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office violated the plaintiffs' rights at the same time they were exchanging the messages.

The messages identified two of the plaintiffs by name.

One of the lawyers who filed the suit, Ben Nisenbaum, said in a statement that the city had allowed its police department to “run amok, letting open racism and brutality [be] its standard.”

“It is hoped that this lawsuit will create fundamental changes to the department’s leadership structure, policy, and training so that racism will be erased from the department,” he said.

Two of the plaintiffs accused officers identified in the report of subjecting them to repeated traffic stops.

ANTIOCH, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 18: Community members including Della Currie, center, listen to civil rights attorney John Burris speak during a rally at Antioch police headquarters in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. Community members rallied and marched to City Hall to demand police reform and accountability following alleged racist, sexist and homophobic texts within the department.
Community members, including Della Currie, center, rally at police headquarters in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday.Jane Tyska / Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Plaintiff Adam Carpenter pointed to text messages the report said were sent by Eric Rombough, one of the officers who he alleged carried out the stops, that said: “I’m only stopping them cuz they black.” The report does not specify whom Rombough was referring to in the message.

Carpenter was arrested on gun charges in November 2020, and the charges were later dismissed, according to the suit. An alleged text message included in the report from one of Carpenter’s arresting officers, Morteza Amiri, appeared to show him discuss fabricating evidence.  

"I sometimes just say people gave me a full confession when they didn’t,” Amiri said, according to the report. “Gets filed easier."

The report, which was compiled after a joint FBI and local investigation into the police department, does not specify what case Amiri was referring to. It is unclear why the gun charges were dismissed.

Another plaintiff, Shagoofa Khan, was accused of burning a “Blue Lives Matter” flag at a protest in January 2021, according to the suit.

Three months later, one of the officers identified in the investigative report, Sgt. Josh Evans, allegedly sent a text message to another officer using a racist, vulgar term to describe Khan’s appearance.

An exterior view of Antioch police headquarters is seen in Antioch, Calif., Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The city council of a small San Francisco Bay Area city voted Tuesday, April 18, 2023, to launch three audits of its troubled Antioch Police Department, the latest development in a year-long federal investigation of the police force that blew up this month with the disclosure of racist text messages among officers. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)
Police headquarters in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday.Terry Chea / AP

Plaintiff Trent Allen was “brutally beaten” by Rombough in 2021 as Rombough was arresting him on suspicion of attempted murder, the suit says.

According to a supplemental investigative report that details messages officers allegedly sent about Allen, Rombough texted Evans a picture of Allen in what appeared to be a hospital bed and said he had given him “6 muzzle thumps” and tried to “kick his head over the fence.”

Other texts included in both reports allege Rombough used a homophobic slur to describe Allen and a racist term to identify people he kicks in the head.

The investigation into the text messages became public this month after authorities provided the investigative reports to lawyers for Allen and others accused in the 2021 alleged crimes.

The fifth plaintiff accused officers of “maliciously” shooting his father in 2021 after a seven-hour standoff with authorities. The father had been armed and fired multiple rounds outside his home after Rombough and three other officers arrived, according to the suit.

The father was unarmed when authorities fatally shot him as he escaped from the house when a fire broke out, the suit says. A brief account of the incident from the district attorney’s office confirmed that he was unarmed and said the matter was referred to the state Justice Department to determine potential criminal liability. 

That review is still pending, according to the state Justice Department.

Michael Rains, a lawyer for Evans, Amiri and two other officers named in the suit, declined to comment on the allegations that the officers violated the civil rights of the plaintiffs, saying he had not reviewed the cases described in the complaint.

Rains said he was disappointed by what the FBI and the district attorney’s investigation alleged. 

“The problem is clearly that their text messages displayed attitudes that in my opinion as an ex-police officer are not consistent with the attitudes or beliefs of the vast majority of officers,” said Rains, who also represents the Antioch police union.

Rains attributed those attitudes to a handful of “active texters” and said other officers who may have been included in the text chains but did not respond at all or responded “in an appropriate manner” are being smeared.

“It’s not fair to them,” he said.

A lawyer for Rombough did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. The police department and the city attorney’s office also did not respond to requests for comment.

The Antioch City Council voted this week to audit the police department. In a statement last week, Police Chief Steven Ford condemned the “racially abhorrent content and incomprehensible behavior being attributed to members of the Antioch Police Department in media reports."

Ford apologized and said he had taken immediate action to ensure a thorough investigation.