Hours after Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford announced his retirement from the embattled department, members of the East County NAACP gathered in front of police headquarters Thursday to heap praise on Ford while calling for robust community involvement in choosing the city’s next interim and permanent police chief.

NAACP chapter president Odessa Lefrancois said that Ford’s tenure “will not go unnoticed” and that he put systems in place to “support and feel the community.”

East County NAACP Vice President Kimberly Payton speaks in front of the Antioch Police Department on Thursday after Chief Steven Ford announced his retirement. The NAACP called for community involvement in selecting Ford’s successor. (Katy St. Clair/Bay City News)

“Thank you chief, for setting a task that was unseen by many,” said Lefrancois at the news conference. “Your ability to work with people who are ready to undermine your leadership before starting is amazing.”

At least 45 officers of the department’s approximately 100 officers — including 16 in management positions — have been implicated in a racist and homophobic texting scandal that included threats against Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe, who is Black, and other African Americans and people of color.

Officers involved in the scandal referred to Ford, who is Black, as a “gorilla” in one text, according to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.

“He was at the barber shop, the beauty shop, he was at the bank, he was at the car wash, he was everywhere, letting them know that you have a police department that really cares about you.”

Odessa Lefrancois, East County NAACP

Lefrancois said Ford worked for months to facilitate difficult conversations, which he never ran away from. She also praised his outreach to the entire community.

“He was at the barber shop, the beauty shop, he was at the bank, he was at the car wash, he was everywhere, letting them know that you have a police department that really cares about you,” she said.

Healing needs to continue

Kimberly Payton, vice president of the East County NAACP, said that their organization was “very sad” that Ford chose to retire and that he worked tirelessly with them.

“While we are sorry that the chief is leaving, the healing and this community needs help to move forward. That includes getting the city leadership, the governance of city officials, City Council, the mayor’s office on board to continue his efforts of reaching out and making things right. Nobody likes to be called gorillas or anything like that. It is this city’s leadership’s job to bring the community together and show transparency and community building.”

In a letter Wednesday evening addressed “To the Antioch Community,” Ford said he was grateful for the opportunity and has worked with “some very talented and passionate people — it has been a great privilege to learn and grow from them.”

“I am proud of what we have accomplished and firmly believe the groundwork has been laid for organizational success,” Ford wrote. “I know our work to align us with the tenants of Procedural Justice and Constitutional Policing will keep this Department headed in the right direction. I sincerely hope our engagement with the Community will continue and flourish.”

Ford was hired with a promise to reform a department already under investigation. But the news kept getting worse during his leadership. The city is scrambling to get fresh recruits through the police academy and is relying on overtime to staff the many vacancies.

Ford’s tenure has been marred by his department being investigated by the FBI and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office for the past year-and-a-half for civil rights violations stemming from the text messages. The scandal has been big enough for many to call for a federal takeover of the department.

‘An insurmountable task’

The California Attorney General’s Office announced its own civil rights investigation earlier this year, and at least two members of Congress have urged U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch a Justice Department probe.

“Ford had an insurmountable task,” said NAACP education committee member Mike Dupray. “Our police departments have deep roots in racist slavery and the racist and misogynistic culture in our police departments persist to this day. It must be rooted out and changed either on its own or by force, and on its own ain’t working.”

Antioch Police Chief Steven Ford leads the Pledge of Allegiance during the unveiling of the Opportunity Village transitional housing hotel in Antioch on April 27, 2023. Ford, who announced his upcoming retirement from the department in August, has received praise for his community involvement during his brief tenure. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

Asked if Ford was taking the fall for a fractured department and perhaps letting others off the hook, Lefrancois said she disagreed.

“Sometimes people come into a situation or into a place just for a short period of time to accomplish something,” she said. “And that might have been the reason that he was drawn to here. Maybe not to stay, but to facilitate a healing.

Payton added that the community has been very clear that they want to have a large say in who succeeds Ford.

“They want to have a voice, to have a say in who’s picked and who comes next,” she said. “Somebody has to begin cleaning up this mess. And that community that wants to heal should certainly have a voice in that to pick up where Chief Ford left off.”

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.