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Editorial: Torrance racist text scandal highlights rot in police culture

Protesters with "Black Lives Matter" signs attend a city council meeting
Protesters attend a Torrance City Council meeting in December 2019.
(Los Angeles Times)
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Two Torrance police officers allegedly spray-painted a swastika inside a car they had directed to be towed in January 2020, and the resulting district attorney’s investigation led to the discovery of a sickening stockpile of racist, antisemitic and homophobic texts sent between them and among about a dozen other members of the 200-plus officer agency.

Now The Times reports that hundreds of criminal cases could be thrown out because the messages reveal a level of bigotry that could undermine the officers’ credibility in court. Already, the texts have resulted in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office dropping 35 felony cases, and the Torrance city attorney another 50.

The growing scandal underscores the rot that persists at the heart of some police departments, especially smaller ones that have until now escaped the kind of scrutiny directed toward larger agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department that officially target racism and unconstitutional policing, with varying degrees of success.

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The Times has identified a dozen Torrance police officers who are under investigation for sharing racist and homophobic text messages and images.

The danger, it must be noted, goes well beyond the implication that the 18 officers under investigation (13 of whom were named by The Times) view Torrance residents through a racist lens. Dist. Atty. George Gascón has reopened an investigation (dismissed by his predecessor) into the 2018 killing of Christopher DeAndre Mitchell by two of the officers involved in the texting scandal, Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon.

A text message by Christopher Tomsic, one of the officers involved in the spray-painting incident, may be especially telling.

“Shopping at 7/11 while Black, he didn’t know the rules lol,” he wrote — displaying an attitude toward Black people that might be at home in the Georgia community where Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down last year by neighbors who deemed him to be out of place; or in the Torrance of decades past, when as a mostly white “sundown town” non-whites were not tolerated by local police officers.

Tomsic was referring to a person who filed a racial profiling case against him. Another part of his text could be seen as an admission: “So we totally racially profiled his ass, haha.”

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announces an investigation into the Torrance Police Department after a Times report on racist texts between officers.

It shocks the conscience, but no longer comes as a complete surprise, that the same attitude may persist today in many police departments, and not merely those in former sundown towns. San Francisco’s police department, where Gascón was once chief, has been upended by the revelation of racist texts among officers. Similar police messages, sent among officers by computers in the patrol cars in the pre-texting era, came to light in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King in 1991, leading to a variety of reforms. But racism in the LAPD persists, as exemplified by a distasteful “valentine” that mocked the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

Gascón deserves credit for delving deeply into the Torrance situation, as does Police Chief Jeremiah “Jay” Hart, who brought the texts to Gascón’s attention in July.

Racist attitudes expressed in messages meant to be private may hint at problems that could include excessive force.

“Generally, people do not engage in this behavior without having a connection to other things,” Gascón said at a Wednesday news conference, when asked about the investigation.

In the wake of the Times story, California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced that his office has also begun a review of the Torrance Police Department.

It’s likely not the only city whose police warrant scrutiny. Gascón, Bonta, and indeed all of us should keep the pressure on.


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