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Judge Finds 8 Antioch Police Officers Tainted by Racial Bias, Reduces Criminal Charges

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Two people hold signs, one depicting a man with a deep wound to his head, as one of the people speaks emphatically in an outdoor setting.
Kathryn Wade (left) and Carolyn Simmons speak out against the police violence that Wade says her son, Malad Baldwin, experienced at the hands of the Antioch Police Department at a rally in front of the A.F. Bray Courthouse in Martinez on Aug. 25, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

On Monday, a Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge threw out sentence enhancements in a criminal case where Antioch police officers sent racist text messages about four men accused of murder.

In his ruling, Judge David Goldstein said the behavior by officers violated the California Racial Justice Act, a state law designed to eliminate racial bias from the justice system by empowering defendants to challenge racism in the justice system.


Catch up fast: The four men, all in their early 20s, are accused of a drive-by shooting in an Antioch neighborhood in March 2021. Arnold Marcel Hawkins, 22, was killed and another man was injured. The arrest of the four men was heralded by East Bay law enforcement as a step toward reducing gun violence. In court, the men argued their arrests were motivated by racial bias.

The context: For years, Antioch residents have reported racist and illegal behavior by local law enforcement. They have protested fatal shootings by police. Last summer, an FBI investigation into criminal misconduct by Pittsburg and Antioch police officers uncovered thousands of racist text messages. Nearly half of the Antioch police department was temporarily put on leave after the discovery and the police chief resigned. Ten law enforcement employees were eventually charged with federal crimes, including fraud, civil rights abuses and falsification of records. The still-unfolding police misconduct scandal is the biggest to hit the Bay Area since the Oakland Riders case in the early 2000s.

The big picture:
The California Racial Justice Act, the first of its kind in the nation, was passed in 2020. Contra Costa is a hot spot for defense attorneys testing the law’s limit. In the case decided this week, attorneys argued that the entire Antioch Police Department has operated with a culture that permits and promotes racism for years.

More on Antioch Police Department

What we are watching: The ruling could affect hundreds of criminal cases in the county and around the state. Following the FBI investigation, Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton dismissed more than 30 criminal cases and is evaluating others. Defense attorneys arguing that racial bias played a role in a client’s arrest, charging or sentencing now have a clearer pathway to use the RJA.

The opposing view: For survivors of crime, seeing charges dismissed can be devastating. Hawkins’ family members filled the gallery benches at court dates. When parts of the justice system, such as policing, are found to be shaped by racism and can’t be relied upon for a just outcome, where will the survivors of crime turn for accountability?

The bottom line: The decision in Contra Costa County cements a radical change in California’s justice system.

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