State AG launches investigation of racist, homophobic texts by Torrance police officers
California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an independent investigation Wednesday into the Torrance Police Department after evidence emerged that officers were sharing racist and homophobic texts in which they joked about slave lynchings, LGBTQ beatings and police shootings of Black men.
Thus far, 13 officers have been placed on administrative leave as an outgrowth of investigations into the offensive texts.
Bonta said his probe comes at the request of Torrance Police Chief Jeremiah Hart and is aimed at finding any systemic failures amid allegations of excessive force, racist text messages and other discriminatory misconduct. Bonta and Hart are hoping to establish best practices and rebuild trust between the Police Department and the community.
“Our communities throughout the state of California deserve to know they will get equal justice under the law,” Bonta said in an interview with the Southern California News Group on Wednesday, Dec. 8.
“The first time I heard about the contents (of the texts) I was very disturbed. It was painful,” Bonta said. “Changes need to be made in the Torrance Police Department.”
Move to suppress texts
Meanwhile, attorneys for two former officers are scheduled to go to court in Torrance on Monday to ask a judge to block the texts from being used as evidence, which would halt any any action based on those missives. A court motion contends the texts were obtained through an illegal, overly broad search warrant that violated California’s digital privacy law.
The motion, obtained by Southern California News Group, covers the cellphone seized in 2020 from former Officer Cory Weldin. He and ex-Officer Christopher Tomsic were charged in August with spray-painting a swastika on a vehicle impounded from a theft suspect. The document contends a non-peace officer was retained by police to conduct another search of the phone, and the contents — including the offensive texts — were distributed to unauthorized individuals, both alleged violations.
“The sweeping information extracted from the search warrant threatens the privacy protections promised to all Californians,” said the motion by Rancho Cucamonga attorney Thomas Yu. He and Tomsic’s attorney, Lisa Houle, are asking the texts be suppressed and destroyed.
The state attorney general’s announcement came hours after the publication of a Los Angeles Times investigation that showed officers sending texts such as one depicting a picture of a candy cane, a Christmas tree ornament, a star for the treetop and an “enslaved person.” The caption said which one doesn’t belong? The texted answer: you don’t hang a star, the Times wrote.
According to the Times, the officers also texted about gassing Jewish people and beating members of the LGBTQ community.
Torrance chief cooperates
Bonta said such behavior would not be tolerated from police.
“Police departments are on the front lines of that fight every day as they work to protect the people of our state. However, where there is evidence of potentially pervasive bias or discrimination, it can undermine the trust that is critical for public safety and our justice system,” Bonta wrote. “I applaud … Hart for being willing to engage with my office to tackle these concerns head-on.”
Hart added, “As police chief of the Torrance Police Department, I am committed to accountability, and I will not tolerate any form of bigotry, racism, hate, or misconduct.”
Initially, the state review will be conducted by the California Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section with the assistance of DOJ’s Division of Law Enforcement. Anyone with information is asked to contact the enforcement section at Police-Practices@doj.ca.gov.
Others officers identified by the Times and confirmed by a source close to the investigation are Blake Williams, Brian Kawamoto, Joshua Satterfield, Omar Alonso, Christopher Allen-Young and Long Beach police Officer Maxwell Schroeder. Another estimated 18 Torrance officers received the texts but didn’t respond, the source said.
90 cases dismissed
Mark Pongleak, a spokesman for the Police Department, confirmed Wednesday that the Torrance City Attorney’s Office has dismissed approximately 50 misdemeanor cases “due to the unavailability of officers who are currently on administrative leave” in the text case. The District Attorney’s Office has dismissed about 40 cases, according to a spokesman for the office.
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon , during a news conference Wednesday to tout his first-year accomplishments, said he learned about the texts in July while investigating the two former Torrance officers who allegedly painted the swastika.
“When this case involving (the swastika) was brought to my attention, my first reaction, as it is today, generally, people do not engage in this kind of behavior without having a connection (to other incidents),” said Gascon who served as district attorney in San Francisco before ousting incumbent Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles.
”I faced similar situations in San Francisco, I had a complete roadblock from the chief of police at the time. I found the chief of police in Torrance wanted to do the right thing. … There is no place for racism or homophobic behavior by members of government, especially law enforcement. It’s not becoming of a police officer.”