ANTIOCH — On the one-year anniversary of his taking the job, Antioch police chief Steven Ford addressed the racist texting scandal embroiling his department in an exclusive interview with KPIX.
No subject was off the table during the hour-long interview. He talked about his career, taking the reins of the troubled department, and the ongoing racist texting scandal involving as many as 45 of his officers.
The Antioch City Council met for the first time Tuesday night in a closed session to discuss a massive lawsuit against the city – alleging dozens of police officers were intentionally using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights.
This all started after hundreds of racist text messages came to light as part of an FBI investigation into the Antioch and Pittsburg Police Departments. The officers were accused of distributing cocaine and steroids and accepting bribes.
Currently, 38 of the city’s 99 officers are on paid administrative leave after investigators say they were part of the texting scandal.
Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford taking the reins of the department.
“The Antioch PD will never be the same again, and that’s not a bad thing,” said Ford, who was not with the department at the time the text messages were sent.
Ford, a man whose parents came up through the civil rights movement, read some of the text messages out loud during Tuesday’s interview.
“This says ‘I was bummed that beast’ and then it’s blacked out ‘was so fat because he didn’t bruise up very fast,'” he read from a redacted investigation report from the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office.
Investigators say at least 17 officers were part of a text messaging group on their personal phones for years where they would congratulate each other for intentionally hurting people during arrests, and repeatedly using the n-word.
“It says ‘I’ll bury that N in my fields,'” Ford said as he continued to read the texts aloud.
Those racist texts were sent over a two-year span from September 2019 to January 2022. The FBI found them when the Antioch police officers’ phones were seized during a federal drug investigation into steroid and cocaine trafficking, and bribery.
“It reads ‘bro the circus is in town but it seems they only brought monkeys.'” Ford said as he continued reading the messages.
How does it feel to read those texts?
“It angers me. I’ll be honest with you. It angers me. I think most people who know me I’m pretty low-key,” said Ford. “Normally it takes a lot to kind of get me going. But I would be lying if I said I weren’t, you know, very angry and frustrated with what I’ve read and seen over the past few weeks.”
In the past year, Chief Ford worked with some of those officers in this small, tight-knit department.
“You think, wow, I mean, I’ve worked with this person and I’ve trusted this person, you know, we’ve been out here, you know, as they say, you know, on the street doing police work,” said Ford. “And so it’s very disappointing, very shocking, you know?”
Did you feel betrayed?
“For sure, you know, I would be lying if I said that I weren’t, you know, that I wasn’t disappointed when I came to find out some of the names because, you know, some if not all were men that I relied on and needed.”
Page after page of text messages implicated dozens of fellow officers over the span of two years. The texts were violent, racist, and to Ford, unforgivable.
“It states ‘We managed to set up a perimeter in the backyard and I field goal kicked his head. I thought that was a no-no. No, we can now do that. Just no chokes,'” Ford narrated from the texts.
Is it possible to change the heart and mind of an officer who thinks that way?
“You know, when you see this kind of rhetoric and hate speech, you know, can you really undo that? I don’t know,” Ford responded. “Those are some deeply-rooted, systemic issues that they have to address within themselves.”
What would it take for you to allow some of those officers to go back on the street and be able to trust them?
“Do I trust them to go back on the street and engage with this community? Based upon what’s written here? I would say that that trust has been breached. I’ll leave it there,” said Ford.
When he took the job a year ago, Ford says he inherited a department where white men make up a vast majority of the force, while the city’s population is 55% Black and Latino. Ford says diversifying the department is one of his top priorities when it comes to reform.
“We all are comfortable with that which we know. And the inverse is also true: that which we don’t know creates instant discomfort,” he said, adding, “We have to be more intentional about going into those communities that traditionally had been underserved, but finding value in them and certainly in protecting them at the same threshold that we do other communities … Have we made mistakes? Clearly, but we’re going to correct those mistakes, and we’re going to move forward and do it in a very meaningful way.”
With 38 of 99 officers now under investigation and on paid administrative leave, Ford has reorganized the force and is making it work, for now. If needed, he may call on surrounding agencies for help with patrol including the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office, Pittsburgh PD, Brentwood PD, Oakley PD, or the California Highway Patrol.
“We do have a diminished workforce. Is the city still in a position where we have the adequate personnel to keep the city safe around the clock? Absolutely,” said Ford.
What can you say now about your trust in the remaining officers?
“I’m going to say point blank upfront, the bulk of the officers in this organization have been great. They are hardworking officers. There are a lot of dedicated men and women who work here and really take their role seriously in terms of public safety,” he said. “I have to trust them. Because there’s work to be done, you know, and policing is the ultimate team sport.”
Why you? This doesn’t have to be your battle. You can walk away.
“I could walk away now, but I choose to stay. You know, I’m committed to the organization. I’m committed to the profession … I’m supposed to be here right now in this moment. I feel that all the experiences, all the opportunities throughout my career, personal, professional, academic, I feel that they have all culminated into this moment, and I don’t believe anything happens by chance. This was supposed to be.”
These officers knew for almost 10 years that personal phones are subject to search. How did they get to the point of being that brazen, having the hubris to do that?
“That’s the $64,000 question!” he said, adding, “You know, when any organization finds itself in this seat, there’s two things that are apparent. There’s been some neglect and there’s been a serious lack of accountability.”
While new to the Antioch PD, Ford is not new to law enforcement. Before taking the job, he spent 33 years with the San Francisco Police Department – and was there during SFPD’s own racist, homophobic texting scandal back in 2013.
“I’ve been down this road before. In San Francisco. We had some similar circumstances. My former organization. And so I feel well positioned at this point to move this work forward and get the work done and do what we need to do to get the organization back on track.”
Ford says his department will spend the next few months and years, reorganizing – and soul-searching.
“We’re doing a deep dive just to overhaul the psychology of the organization and get everybody kind of realigned in terms of what their role is, you know, what are we here for? We have to redefine our purpose, you know, and once we redefine our purpose, I think that will help us recalibrate and get on track. But diversity, equity inclusion training is absolutely essential. It’s essential. We have it already. Obviously, we can do more of it.”
Is this department worth saving?
Why not just go the direction of doing a contract with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department almost like Danville does?
“I think that this city is unique, you know, this city has some variables, where it needs a strong, municipal engaged police organization. I would like to think that the organization is salvageable. I’ve had those conversations, I made it very clear that I think we should salvage the organization,” Ford said. “I’m going to say point blank upfront. The bulk of the officers in this organization have been great. They are hardworking officers, but I don’t want this to be an indictment on the entire organization. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.”
Ford also said he understands based on everything that happened, he would not be surprised if a federal monitor was brought in to oversee the department, much like what has happened in Oakland and San Francisco. He’s hoping he’ll have a chance to make the needed reforms before it comes to that.