Amid FBI investigation, Antioch police refuse to release use of force records, including a controversial neck hold that has since been widely banned
Four dog bite cases are also being withheld
(Pictured above: Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford at police headquarters in Antioch, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. The FBI and Contra Costa DA’s office continue their investigation into use of force cases involving officers from Antioch and Pittsburg police departments. Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
By NATE GARTRELL
This story was originally published in The San Jose Mercury on March 27, 2023.
In the shadow of an FBI investigation into Antioch police’s use of force and other suspected misdeeds, the city is refusing to release records of a dozen cases that would shed more light on the force officers use on residents.
The city’s decision this month to withhold the cases comes as the state continues to expand police transparency rules and with the FBI and county prosecutors probing alleged civil rights violations for on-duty uses of force, including when police dogs have been sicced on people.
Of the 12 cases withheld, four involve police K9s causing an injury, including a man who suffered “obvious disfigurement” in 2016, and eight others concern officers who left suspects unconscious through use of a controversial neck hold technique that has since been banned statewide. In each case, the city insists the injuries are not serious enough to warrant disclosure.
The refusal came in response to a request by the California Reporting Project, an alliance of various news organizations that has spent years fighting for public records on police misconduct and use of force across the state.
However, under pressure from a lawyer representing this news organization, the city did agree to release records on seven other use of force cases it had previously withheld, including two involving a K9 officer under investigation by the FBI.
For decades, most police use of force records could be kept from the public, but a state law passed in 2018, known as SB 1421, changed that. The law requires police to release records, body camera footage and even recorded interviews in cases where a person suffered what is called “great bodily injury” at the hands of police. A law passed in 2021, SB16, expanded the list of records and tightened the time frames.
At the same time, police are required to disclose to the state Attorney General any incidents of use of force involving “serious bodily injury,” a different legal term that is generally considered to apply to the most severe injuries.
The California Reporting Project identified the dozen missing Antioch cases by reviewing what was reported to the AG and comparing it to the SB 1421 releases Antioch had previously made. In response, Antioch insisted that some cases reported to the AG still are not required to be released to the public, an unusual position for a police agency to take. While great bodily injury is defined as any significant or substantial injury under the penal code, Antioch in effect is arguing that causing unconsciousness is not always a significant injury.
Antioch police Chief Steven Ford and the City Attorney’s Office did not respond to emailed questions as of Sunday afternoon. However, a city official expressed willingness to review the dozen cases in response to this news organization’s lawyer earlier this week, while making no commitments to release them.
Since SB 1421 went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the California Reporting Project has filed more than 2,500 requests with law enforcement agencies, district attorneys and oversight agencies. Antioch is the only agency thus far to refuse en masse to release cases where an officer or officers’ use of force left a person unconscious.
For example, San Jose police released five such cases, three of which were instances where an officer used a carotid hold. In each case, the subject did not die.
“For purposes of public disclosure under the California Public Records Act, any term that favors disclosure must be construed broadly and any term that limits disclosure must be construed narrowly,” said David Loy, the legal director for the First Amendment Coalition. “Our position is in cases of doubt, the tie should go to disclosing the records. Err on the side of disclosure, always.”
The carotid hold technique involves the use of both arms to squeeze certain arteries in a person’s neck. It is intended to make the person lose consciousness for a few seconds, but can also cause the airwaves to the brain to restrict and never reopen, leading to deaths. In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, Antioch and many other police agencies across the country voluntarily banned the practice, though the officers who killed Floyd didn’t employ it.
In February 2016, 37-year-old Wendell Celestine Jr. died after being placed in a carotid hold by Antioch police Officers Mike Mortimer and Mark Moraga. An autopsy found he died of asphyxiation, but a Contra Costa coroner’s inquest jury ruled the death an accident. A Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office investigation later cleared Mortimer and Moraga.
The decision by the city not to release the 12 cases comes against the backdrop of an FBI investigation that has targeted more than a dozen current and former Antioch and Pittsburg officers, including at least eight from Antioch. In addition to alleged civil rights violations, members of the group are accused of crimes that include distribution of cocaine, methamphetamine, and steroids, obtaining pay bumps through fraudulently obtaining degrees and accepting bribes to make traffic tickets go away.
The seven records released this year by Antioch include dog bite cases involving who multiple law enforcement sources say is the FBI investigation’s primary target, an Antioch officer named Morteza Amiri, who has been on unpaid administration leave for the past year. Amiri, whose K9 partner, Purcy, bit dozens of people from early 2019 to early 2022, is under investigation for dog bite incidents, though authorities haven’t said which ones. A grand jury in San Francisco has been convening since last year, and is expected to decide whether to file charges sometime in 2023.
Antioch has released records on Celestine’s death and has indicated they will soon turn over records of another man who died in 2021 as police were struggling with him. The officers were cleared last January after a review by the DA’s office.
Antioch is not the only city to put up a fight over records. The California Reporting Project has analyzed record requests from 120 law enforcement agencies, including the state’s largest cities and every sheriff’s department. Only 28 of those agencies said that they’ve handed complete records on time. Another five agencies say they have met their obligations, but took longer than the 45-day window now mandated under SB 16 to make these files public.
But even those small numbers may be deceptive.
In Riverside, the county sheriff’s department has reported more than three dozen civilian deaths to the California Department of Justice since 2016, and almost as many serious injuries, like broken bones and gunshot wounds – all related to use of force incidents. The department has made just one file available for that period, for a 7-year-old case, and has released no files for incidents where someone was gravely injured or killed at its transparency site. Still, the Riverside sheriff’s department says that its response is complete.
This story was produced with the California Reporting Project, a coalition of about 40 news organizations across the state, including the Bay Area News Group.
Contributors include Leila Barghouty of Stanford Journalism’s Big Local News, Bella Arnold and Krissy Waite of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program and Molly Peterson of The California Newsroom, a collaboration of public media stations.