A few weeks ago, the Contra Costa County district attorney announced the results of an investigation that found up to 40% of police officers in Antioch, a Bay Area town where most of the people are not white, were part of a racist text message chain.
Calling Black people “monkeys” and “gorillas” wasn’t even the worst of it. Messages sent over a number of years often used the word “N” and made jokes about going after people because of their skin color. They might end up keeping records of racial-based civil rights violations.
Under new state law, the California Law Enforcement Accountability Reform Act, also called Assembly Bill 655, this kind of hate speech could be a crime that leads to dismissal if it can be proven.
Ed Obayashi, a lawyer and Plumas County sheriff’s deputy who advises law enforcement units across the country on social media misconduct said that many police don’t know the law. He also said that most of them don’t fully understand what this means.
Obayashi told me that he hasn’t had much luck getting his friends to pay attention to the CLEAR Act.
They may finally pay attention to the incident in Antioch. If the city of Antioch uses the CLEAR Act to punish its officers, it could set a standard for future cases and make it harder for people to hide their hate behind a badge.
The CLEAR Act was made to stop extremism in law enforcement and get rid of officers who are part of groups that are known to be hate groups. But Obayashi and the bill’s author, San Jose Democrat Ash Kalra, say that six words in the new law that ban “advocacy of public expressions of hate” make it cover a lot more than just joining the Proud Boys or hanging out with neo-Nazis. Obayashi thinks the goal of the law, which went into effect on January 1, is clear: “If you have any racist bias, you will be fired.”
In an email, a representative from the state Department of Justice said that the department is still working on the details of the rules. Steven A. Ford, who is the chief of police in Antioch, didn’t answer an email about the CLEAR Act.
Racist behavior by police officers is still shocking, but it shouldn’t be. It seems like a new scandal pops up every few months, like garbage from a broken pipe.
James Queally Wrote About an Incident
In August, my colleague James Queally wrote about an incident in Torrance where a cop used the N-word while texting another officer about family members who were protesting the shooting of a young Black man, Christopher Deandre Mitchell.
In the past few years, many police and sheriff’s offices, including some in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Eureka, and Sacramento, have had similar problems.
And, of course, there’s Los Angeles County. According to a 2020 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, deputy gangs in the Sheriff’s Department have cost the city about $55 million in lawsuits because of their not-so-secret tattoos, which are a very clear way of communicating.
Some of them lost their jobs. Some were not. Before AB 655, the rules weren’t clear, so offices could mostly set their own standards. But the CLEAR Act is clear; if a cop has broken it, the department has no choice but to fire them.
Like, for example, officers use racial slurs over and over again while on duty in a diverse area. Obayashi says that even if those Antioch text messages are shared on personal phones, no one should expect privacy. Once they are public, they can start a probe under the CLEAR Act that can look at everything that officer has said or done in public for the past seven years.
Obayashi shows officers that their rights under the First Amendment don’t get in the way of their duties as peace agents. It is bad policing to say racist or cruel things on Facebook, Twitter, or in a text.
“If you do this, you are too stupid to be a cop, no matter how racist you are,” he said.
Kalra, who wrote the bill, told me, “It was definitely meant to get rid of officers with the kind of attitudes that Antioch officers have.”
He said that the racial slurs, the disrespect for women, and the lack of care are all signs of extreme. Even if the officers in the text chain aren’t in a hate group, the power they have makes their acts dangerous.
“When we think about what a police officer does, it’s clear that these are extreme views,” Kalra said.
And it looks like some of the Antioch cops’ hatred may have gone further than words. Some of the texts talk about police officers using too much force or going after people because of their race. Along with the federal lawsuit brought by the Antioch residents who were mentioned in the texts, a Latino couple has also sued, saying that police officers attacked them because of their race.
The cops involved in the Antioch scandal have every right to fair treatment. Mike Rains, who represents both the Antioch Police Officers’ Association and some of the officers involved in the scandal, said that he doesn’t think the CLEAR Act applies to something like a text message chain because it’s not related to a hate group or a specific hate crime.
“Even if it’s disgusting and says things about a person or race that sound hateful on the surface, I don’t think that’s enough,” he said.
He also thinks that the Antioch cops who got the messages but didn’t actively take part in the texting chain shouldn’t be judged the same way as those who were driving the conversation and that their silence shouldn’t be taken as agreement.
“Those officers pay a pretty high price just for being on a text chain,” Rains said.
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Most Departments in California Don’t Have Enough Rules
Right now, he said, most departments in California don’t have rules that require officers to report biased or racist comments from their coworkers. This seems like something we should demand, just like we expect officers to step in when they see too much force.
John Burris, a civil rights lawyer who is representing some people from the Antioch community in the federal case, doesn’t think that doing nothing is a way to get out of trouble.
“Silence doesn’t help you,” he said.
The CLEAR Act might only go as far as police chiefs and sheriffs want it to. If they keep trying to hide bias, the rule might not matter much. But this old-school way of doing things no longer works for leaders who want to keep their jobs or who want to bring in a new kind of officer, which is what many responsible chiefs want to do.
Even though Rains has defended the police in court and in public for decades, he says that law enforcement can’t find enough good people to hire because of its image of bias and bad behavior. Scandals like the one at Antioch “bring down the whole profession.”
For example, the Antioch Police Department’s site is essentially a job ad that offers a $30,000 signing bonus.
Departments, especially in California, are under a lot of pressure to change and rebuild trust with communities that are tired of biased police. Alison Berry Wilkinson, a lawyer who often represents officers in disciplinary hearings, said that the CLEAR Act is just a continuation of a trend she has already seen of departments no longer being able to accept bias.
Like Senate Bill 2, which is another reform bill that, for the first time, lets California remove a police officer’s certification for major wrongdoing so that they can’t carry a badge anywhere in the state, this is the public will written down.
“It’s a clear statement of what’s already going on,” she said. “People who believe in these things and send hateful text messages in this way don’t belong in this industry.”
If law enforcement leaders can use the CLEAR Act to set standards and maybe even get rid of an old and ugly way of thinking, then it is a law that should be used to its fullest potential.
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