Report: Santa Rosa police violated human rights during protests

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Santa Rosa officials have yet to comment on a new report alleging human rights abuses during the city’s response to recent protests. Viera Photographics

A 40-page report published by a Sonoma County commission this week offers the most comprehensive account so far of how police handled local racial justice protests in May and June.

At a meeting Friday, July 10, the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights voted to publish and distribute a report titled “Human Right Violations in Santa Rosa California – Policing the Black Lives Matter Protests.” 

In addition to detailing numerous alleged human rights violations by law enforcement officials during the recent protests, the report summarizes several high-profile police-involved deaths and other incidents dating back to the 2000 publication of a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report titled “Community Concerns About Law Enforcement in Sonoma County.” 

All together, the Human Rights report describes the protests as the latest chapter in a decades-long history of distrust between residents—particularly people of color—and local law enforcement agencies.

“We felt it was really important to place these Black Lives Matter protests within the context of the history of white supremacy and racism in the county as well as the strained relationship between law enforcement and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities,” D’mitra Smith, the chair of the commission, said in an interview.

“When there’s a narrative of not really wanting to dig into that, you’ll see things posed in a kind of ‘Wow…where did these protests come from in idyllic Wine Country?,’” Smith added. “We felt that it was an opportunity to really talk about this stuff in a comprehensive way, because ever since I’ve been on the Commission (since 2012), we’ve been receiving reports of racist actions and assaults by police.”

The Human Rights report was prepared after the Commission hosted a June 19 meeting in which protesters described their experiences—some of which are detailed in the report—to local officials, including Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, Police Chief Ray Navarro and Sonoma County supervisors Susan Gorin and Lynda Hopkins.

The commission, which had a $12,000 budget this year, is tasked with “Creating awareness of human rights issues faced by members of our community”; “Advocating for policy changes necessary to better protect human rights”; and “bringing attention to human rights issues of concern to County residents,” according to the Commission’s mission statement. 

In line with the Commission’s mission, the report amplifies protesters’s demands, including having the city hire an “individual of impeccable and publicly recognized independence and integrity” to complete an independent review of the police department’s use of force policies, use of military-grade weaponry on residents and the human rights abuses described in the report.

The protesters also demand that police stop using tear gas, rubber bullets, grenades and other projectiles on residents, especially during peaceful protests. They also demand that SRPD discipline officers for the behavior detailed in the report, “with a minimum standard of termination of employment.” Lastly, the protesters demand that SRPD stop using kettling, a crowd control technique which involves compressing marchers into smaller and smaller spaces, which can lead an otherwise-peaceful protest to turn confrontational.

In a statement about the report released Tuesday afternoon, Navarro, the police chief, highlighted the city’s actions so far, including beginning work on a “Community Empowerment Strategy,” establishing a city council subcommittee, and banning the use of the Carotid restraint, days after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would remove the controversial neck restraint from the state law enforcement training manual.

“We take allegations of violence against protestors and/or misconduct very seriously and investigations related to filed complaints are underway,” Navarro stated, before adding that the city is in the “final selection process” of hiring a contractor to complete an After Action Report (AAR).

A review of the city’s Request For Proposals, a document used to hire an outside contractor, indicates that the scope of the AAR will be limited to the first week of protests—May 30 through June 5—and be subject to edits by Police Department and city staff prior to presentation to the City Council. 

Additionally, the RFP states that although the SRPD “received mutual aid from several Sonoma County agencies and the CHP (during the timeframe covered by the report). This AAR should remain focused explicitly on the Santa Rosa Police Department’s planning and response to the events.”

Proposals for the RFP were due on June 30 and the city expects to select a contractor in July, according to an estimated timeline included in the RFP.

[UPDATE: The Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights has released a statement in response to Chief Navarro’s July 14 statement.]

Historical Matters

The timeline laid out in the Human Rights report begins in 2000 when the Citizens Advisory Committee to the U.S. The Commission on Civil Rights published a report outlining community concerns about local law enforcement agencies’ practice.

“At a September 24, 1997, meeting in Santa Rosa with Commission staff, community spokespersons detailed their frustration with officers who, they allege, view deadly force as the only alternative; questioned the methods of investigation of shootings; noted their lack of confidence in the system; alleged the district attorney allowed the department whose officer perpetrated the shooting to investigate; suggested that officers are not trained to deal with mentally impaired individuals; alleged the departments try to ‘criminalize’ their victims and marginalize their critics; generally noted that the police departments and county sheriff have poor communications with the communities they serve; and alleged the police are not accountable to anyone,” the 2000 Human Rights report states.

According to the Human Rights report—and the concerns local protesters have raised during recent protests—little has changed in the past two decades.

High profile cases over the past 20 years described in the Human Rights report include the 2007 killing of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old Black youth, in Sebastopol; the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez; a 2015 lawsuit against the county over the Sheriff’s “yard counseling” policy; the 2017 killing of Branch Wroth in Rohnert Park; and, most recently, the killing of David Ward on the morning of Nov. 27, 2019. According to a count cited in the Human Rights report, Sonoma County law enforcement officers have been involved in the deaths of 91 people since 2000. 

Despite the continuation of high-profile deaths involving local agencies, the law enforcement agencies named in the 2000 Civil Rights report—Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office—have not fulfilled one of the report’s central recommendations: creating civilian review boards, the Human Rights report states.

Instead, in the years after the 2013 killing of Andy Lopez and associated protests, the county created the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), an independent office with limited powers to review internal investigations by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. 

In 2016, Santa Rosa hired an attorney to review the Police Department’s policies and internal investigations but, in late 2018, after a public disagreement with the City Council, the city declined to renew the attorney’s contract. So far, the city has not hired a new auditor.

On top of the high-profile cases, the report cites decades-long community concerns about racist policing grounded in the region’s Confederate roots.

“This Commission has received numerous reports that law enforcement agencies regularly engage in arbitrary stops and questioning of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) residents, and that racial profiling is understood to have been the standard procedure of all (Law Enforcement Agencies) in Sonoma County for generations,” the report states.

The report also describes similar community reports of white supremacist behavior by law enforcement, which “is believed by many to correlate to the deep historical relationship to the Confederacy that exists in Sonoma County,” as recorded in newspaper archives, oral histories and apparent today in the ongoing use of Confederate flags.

Protest Accounts

The report goes on to detail law enforcement agencies’ response to local protests over the past six weeks, including several protesters injured by law enforcement’s “less-lethal” weapons and the June 2 mass arrest of over 100 protesters during Santa Rosa’s short-lived curfew order.

In addition to the agencies’ actions during protests, the report also raises concerns about statements by local officials—including the District Attorney and Santa Rosa Police Department—which protesters believe suggest that local law enforcement hold a bias against protesters.

“The lack of adequate investigation of… incidents (involving protesters), combined with the violent policing tactics used by SRPD against peaceful protesters, has created an environment of extreme distrust among community members, who believe SRPD has displayed an institutional bias against peaceful protest of police violence, and in favor of those who would harm protesters,” the report states.

Some of the cases which have caused distrust between law enforcement and protesters involve motorists threatening protesters with their vehicles. The Human Rights report lists eight instances of possible vehicular assault reported by protesters, beginning on May 30 when a red truck drove through a protest in downtown Santa Rosa. So far, local law enforcement have only made an arrest in the May 30 incident, according to the report.

The most recent high-profile case happened during an evening march in Santa Rosa on June 20, when multiple protesters filmed a white Porsche SUV directly towards the crowd. The driver, ignoring protesters’ pleas to slow down and drive around the march, accelerated into the crowd instead. When a protester stopped her car, she called the police to report that a protester had punched her.

In a press release the next day, the SRPD published an account of the incident slanted in favor  of the driver.

Nearly a month later, despite several videos of the incident and dozens of accounts by protesters, it remains unclear whether the police investigated the protesters or the driver. The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office began reviewing the case on July 7.

The 40-page report includes more stories than we can fit in the newspaper this week. The full report is available below.

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