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FBI arrests officers who allegedly used police dogs to attack people

Ten current and former police officers in Northern California were arrested in a series of FBI raids Thursday connected to a set of sweeping indictments that include charges of criminal conspiracy, illegally distributing steroids and using dogs to attack people and violate their civil rights, authorities said.

The officers with the Antioch and Pittsburg police departments in the Bay Area repeatedly skirted accountability, displayed dangerous and dishonest behavior, and “acted as though they were above the law” for years, Ismail Ramsey, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said in a news conference.

The allegations made by prosecutors, which stemmed from a two-year investigation, were wide-ranging over four indictments. Some of the most serious charges were in a civil rights indictment against three Antioch officers accused of planning to hurt specific people using police dogs, collecting “trophies” of their alleged crimes and reveling afterward.

Those three officers — Morteza Amiri, Eric Rombough and Devon Wenger — were already under investigation for sending racist and homophobic text messages.

“Police officers promise to enforce laws for the protection of the public and to protect the rights of the accused. That is the job,” Ramsey told reporters. “The indictments describe officers who are alleged to have violated this oath. When this happens, the damage done to the public trust cannot easily be calculated.”

Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe added in a statement, “Today is a dark day in our city’s history, as people trusted to uphold the law, allegedly breached that trust and were arrested by the FBI.”

If convicted, officers from both departments could face maximum sentences of 10 to 20 years in prison and fines ranging between $100,000 to $500,000. The charges are as follows:

Amiri, Rombough and Wenger are charged with conspiracy against rights, deprivation of rights under color of law and the destruction or falsification of records in federal investigations.Antioch officer Timothy Manly Williams is charged with the destruction, alteration and falsification of records in federal investigations, obstruction of official proceedings and deprivation of rights under color of law. Williams allegedly interfered with an ongoing homicide investigation that was focused on an Oakland-based gang that authorities believed was responsible for several shootings.Wenger and Antioch officer Daniel Harris are charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute anabolic steroids, attempted possession with intent to distribute anabolic steroids, possession with intent to distribute anabolic steroids and the destruction, alteration and falsification of records in federal investigations. Wenger faces these separate charges as part of the steroid distribution indictment.Amiri, Antioch officer Samantha Genoveva Peterson and Pittsburg officers Patrick James Berhan, Brauli Rodriguez Jalapa, Ernesto Juan Mejia-Orozco and Amanda Theodosy-Nash are charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Amiri faces these separate charges as part of the college fraud indictment. The officers are accused of having someone take courses for them that qualified them for pay raises.

Neither the Antioch nor Pittsburg police departments immediately responded to requests for comment Friday morning. Joe Vigil, Antioch’s acting police chief, said in a statement to KPIX, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco, that the charges were “disheartening and undermines the incredible work our staff does on a daily basis.”

“Any police officer who breaks public trust must be held accountable, especially because our effectiveness relies heavily on confidence and support from our community,” he said.

The Antioch Police Officers Association, a nonprofit representing officers, said in a statement on Facebook that it looked forward to the legal process playing out and was “committed to still providing quality service to the citizens of Antioch and also providing support for our members who are still working through this difficult time.”

Michael Rains, an attorney for Amiri, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Rains told KNTV, an NBC affiliate in the Bay Area, that the raid was “completely unnecessary.” He added that the officers are being held in a federal detention center in Oakland.

Will Edelman, an attorney for Rombough, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Edelman said in court that there was “absolutely no reason for Mr. Rombough to appear here in handcuffs,” according to the Bay Area News Group, the first to report on the raids.

It was not immediately clear whether the other officers had attorneys.

Both police departments have been under investigation for the last 18 months. The Contra Costa, Calif., District Attorney’s Office said in early 2022 that multiple officers were under investigation for several offenses, including “crimes of moral turpitude.”

Ramsey, the U.S. attorney, described the civil rights charges against Amiri, Rombough and Wenger as “disturbing.” Between March 2019 and November 2021, Amiri’s police dog, Purcy, bit 28 people, 19 0f whom were Black, according to prosecutors. Rombough had also deployed a 40mm gun that fires less-lethal ammunition at 11 people between November 2020 and August 2021, prosecutors say.

The officers regularly used excessive force as “punishment” to people “beyond any punishment appropriately imposed by the criminal justice system,” and allegedly repeatedly referenced violating people’s civil rights, according to the indictment. In February 2019, Rombough allegedly told Amiri, who had his police dog, that he was planning to go after someone who had crossed a fellow officer and “hopefully get you a bite.” Amiri replied, “Exactly! Blood for blood.”

The exchanges among the officers continued. In July 2019, Amiri pulled over a male bicyclist who did not have his lights on, proceeded to punch the cyclist multiple times and had the dog attack him, according to the indictment. Amiri shared photos of the victim’s wounds with other officers and described the bicyclist as a “turd,” the indictment says. In response to a question from another officer about what cut the dog’s face, Amiri responded, “That’s a piece of the suspect’s flesh lol.”

In October 2020, Amiri bragged over text message about how he had threatened to kill someone, writing, “putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling them to stop stealing isn’t illegal … it’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crimes.” Wenger had encouraged Amiri to “beat” down the person, and offered to help him after he was done with work, prosecutors say.

In addition to the civil rights charges, Ramsey told reporters that six officers engaged in a conspiracy to defraud police departments out of taxpayer dollars by claiming they had earned college credits toward degrees when they had paid others to attend classes and take exams for them. After Berhan had someone complete multiple college courses on his behalf, he was promoted and received a pay increase for work he never did, Ramsey said. Five of his Pittsburg colleagues allegedly followed him in doing the same.

Another indictment alleges that Wegner and Harris, his Antioch colleague, illegally conspired to distribute anabolic steroids, and that Wenger “attempted to delete evidence of the scheme from his cellular phone prior to handing the phone over to law enforcement officers.”

A separate indictment alleges that Williams, an Antioch officer, secretly dialed the target of an investigation in March 2021 and made sure his number was not recorded. Later that year, Williams seized and destroyed the phone of a witness who was recording an incident in which a police dog was deployed during an arrest, according to the indictment.

“Any breach of the public’s trust is absolutely unacceptable,” FBI special agent in charge Robert Tripp said at the news conference. “The actions today make clear that nobody’s above the law.”

Thorpe, the Antioch mayor, urged for the area to “come together as one” following the arrests.

“Today’s actions are the beginning of the end of a long and arduous process,” he said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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