Antioch council approves changes in process of hiring, firing the police chief

Citing a lack of oversight that allowed abuses of power within the police force, the Antioch City Council has agreed to give itself the authority to hire, supervise and remove its police chief.

But that won’t happen until 90 days after the second reading of the ordinance in September, giving Acting City Manager Kwame Reed time to hire an interim chief, which could happen as early as next week, according to Mayor Lamar Thorpe.

“If you pick someone next week or so, we’re looking at two or up to three months in terms of the background check,” Thorpe explained. “So, I’m just trying to  make sure we’re respectful of his (Reed’s) authority now.”

The move — on a 3-2 split vote with councilmembers Mike Barbanica and Lori Ogorchock dissenting — came only days after five former and current Antioch police officers and one community service officer were indicted following an FBI and Contra Costa County District Attorney investigation, which resulted in charges of training course cheating, possession of and conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids, and interfering with an ongoing homicide and attempted murder investigation.

Three other Antioch officers were charged just a day later with conspiracy to drop traffic tickets in exchange for bribes of food and liquor.

Proponent Julia Emegokwue of Antioch supported transferring that power to the council, pointing out the recent corruption investigation and a need for better oversight.

“It’s a good thing that the city exerts a lot of control over the police department …and let’s remember that not just a few officers are going to be arrested,” she said. “We want strict regulation because what they did is not something light; it is very serious.”

City councils are granted wide latitude in deciding how a city will be administered and operated and have the authority to hire and fire a police chief, according to City Attorney Thomas Lloyd Smith. Some, like the city of Fullerton, do just that, but in Antioch, the city manager currently has power over all departments – including the police chief.

Resident Tikki Flow supported the transfer of power to the council, saying the city manager has been in charge for years and nothing has changed in the police force.

“I’m with reimagining things,” she said. “So, if we reimagine how we do our public safety, I think the City Council will make it great … because the City Council is supposed to represent the people, right?”

Robert Collins, stepfather of Angelo Quinto, who died just days after being restrained by police, said he experienced firsthand “the frustration of having no accountability and no transparency.” He suggested one approach might be to form a commission for the role.

“Let’s have no more excuses; we need to reimagine policing in Antioch,” he said. “It’s getting really ridiculous, and we know that the previous structure did not work.”

Resident Andrew Becker also supported change.

“I believe that hiring the police chief is a heavier responsibility for our community and involves a lot,” he said. “I think that there’s a variety of ways the council can go about this. I think that if you’re going to try something different, you should be unique. You should find something that works for your community.”

Former Councilmember and police Officer Ralph Hernandez, meanwhile, was opposed, noting it could result in an unqualified but politically connected officer becoming chief. He also questioned what police experience the council had that would help them supervise the chief. Only Barbanica has worked in law enforcement, and the current chief — Joe Vigil — is an acting one who will return to his regular duties after an interim chief is hired.

“I know what it is to run a department properly, but I don’t think you do,” Hernandez said. “So when you’re looking at somebody that is a police chief, I seriously tell you, you need to have some kind of law enforcement background.”

The idea of the council taking an active role in hiring a chief was first discussed in 2021 when Thorpe and Mayor Pro Tem Tamisha Torres-Walker, during a police oversight standing committee, asked staff to draft a police chief hiring process with community input and the council ratifying the contract.

But by 2022, the FBI and DA investigation of East Contra Costa County officers was underway and it was clear a permanent chief was needed quickly to replace Chief Tammany Brooks, who had left in late 2021.

The council later learned that it cannot not just hire or fire a chief, but would have to supervise that person as well if it wanted to change the process.

“You either have the chief of police report directly to you, or the chief of police reports directly to the city manager,” Thorpe said. “Those are the only two options that exist for this city. So there is no hybrid approach there.…

“I thought this would be an opportunity for the community to come together to shape a process that works for us, but that is not what government code prescribes.”

Thorpe said the only option was to amend the city code to allow for a difference so the council could then “involve the community.”

The city got where it is today, he continued in a heated commentary, because “previous councils and mayors have failed to provide oversight” of the Antioch Police Department. He added that council members were frustrated that they knew so little about the investigation.

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