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SR police, city dispute fed report
Santa Rosa police and city officials Friday rejected a federal civil rights panel's recommendation calling for the creation of an independent civilian review board to investigate police actions. Full story

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Prefaces, Letter of Transmittal & Table of Contents (166 K)
Introduction (268 K)
Community Concerns (1.1 MB)
Law Enforcement Departments (1.5 MB)
Conclusion and Recommendations (244 K)
Appendices (136 K)

'Appalled' at police shootings Fed report: Oversight needed

Fed report: Oversight needed

Apr. 21, 2000 © By BOB KLOSE, Santa Rosa Press Democrat Staff Writer

Appalled by the number of fatal police shootings of civilians, a federal civil rights panel says Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Sonoma County should establish independent civilian review boards to investigate complaints of misconduct and excessive force by police officers.

Those and other recommendations on police oversight in Sonoma County are made in a long-awaited report by the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

A copy of the report, which was approved last week by the full civil rights commission in Washington, D.C., was obtained by The Press Democrat. The recommendations are based on testimony gathered by the committee during hearings in Santa Rosa in February 1998.

The report also criticizes police departments, saying they should not marginalize individuals and organizations who voice concerns about police actions, and that their loyalties should be to their communities, not officers who may have acted improperly.

"We provide police officers with the responsibility to enforce the laws and protect individuals and property," the report said.

"We do not grant them the authority to be arrogant or to abuse this trust. ... When they separate from the greater community to protect individual officers who have transgressed, they also become part of the problem."

The report also acknowledges that police officers operate in a world where life and death is often decided in "milliseconds."

The report was not scheduled to be released for several weeks, and Sonoma County officials declined immediate comment except to express bitterness.

"Surprise, surprise," said Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh. "Everything I've experienced with the civil rights commission has come from the media."

Dunbaugh said he talked with commission officials Wednesday and was told that the report would not be available for two weeks.

"Now, 24 hours later, I get a call from the media," he said.

Dunbaugh declined to comment further until he has a chance to review the report.

Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron also declined to speak about the report before reading it, but reiterated a position taken by city officials in 1998 that they don't think Santa Rosa needs a civilian review board.

"We have a very adequate review process now," she said.

District Attorney Mike Mullins and Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Jeff Miller also declined to comment until they have read the report. Sheriff Jim Piccinini was at a meeting in Modesto and could not be reached Thursday.

Judith Volkart, an attorney and former chairwoman of the Sonoma County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed with the report's finding that independent police oversight is needed, and that it's now up to the cities and county to act.

"It does not make sense to allow one branch of law enforcement to investigate another branch of law enforcement," Volkart said.

"Civilian review boards, as long as they are independent, create confidence that an internal investigation of law enforcement by law enforcement can't provide the community.

"There are now specific recommendations. This is the opportunity for local people to continue what they started two years ago," she said.

The hearings were scheduled in the aftermath of seven incidents over a two-year period in which Sonoma County police officers shot and killed seven citizens. Calls were made for establishment of civilian review boards after the April 1997 death of Rohnert Park resident Kuan Chung Kao.

Kao was shot by Rohnert Park police after he came home intoxicated, caused a disturbance in the neighborhood, and was waving a stick in a threatening manner outside his home when police officers arrived.

The California civil rights panel began inquiries later that year after the Asian American community in the Bay Area complained that racism played a role in the fatal incident.

Kao's death and the other deaths all were ruled justified by Mullins.

Nonetheless, the civil rights panel's report said the number of fatalities at the hands of police is "cause for alarm" and indicates a need for civilian oversight.

"The Advisory Committee is appalled at the number of deadly incidents, justified or not, that have occurred," the report said.

The Advisory Committee believes each municipality will have to decide whether it requires a citizens review board, but believes that such boards should be implemented in Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and for the county sheriff," the report said.

The report said existing procedures for reviewing police conduct are not sufficient.

The Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association organized a countywide citizens advisory panel earlier this year to review police policies and procedures. It was organized along the lines of a citizens committee formed by the Santa Rosa police in 1997.

But the role of both bodies falls short of the investigative power common to civilian review boards. The county and city committees do not investigate or review specific cases of alleged police misconduct, officer-involved shootings, or deaths or injuries suffered by civilians in custody. Nor do they recommend disciplinary action.

Cases of excessive and deadly force by officers are now investigated by police agencies and turned over to the District Attorney's Office to determine whether the police action was lawful. And the grand jury is available to review alleged misconduct.

But the rights panel concluded that the countywide approach and reliance on the grand jury is flawed by the closed-door nature of district attorney investigations and the secrecy under which the grand jury operates.

Instead, it recommended civilian review boards with independent budgets and offices separate from law enforcement. The boards, the rights panel said, should have the power to conduct independent investigations, compel police to testify and have an appeal process.

The panel also recommends such review boards answer directly to elected officials and the community by meeting in open sessions.

The report faulted Sonoma County law enforcement leaders for what it said was an unwillingness to acknowledge a divided community.

"There has rarely been in my experience a situation so polarized such as Sonoma County where one side so vehemently denies that there is a problem at all," Commissioner Yvonne Lee said in an appendix to the report.

"Before there can be serious efforts to improve police-community relations, the law enforcement community needs to come to the table as a willing and sincere partner, open to recognizing concerns and viewpoints which may be different from its own."

The report acknowledged the difficult job law enforcement is charged to perform.

"The Advisory Committee is aware that the threat of violence is an inherent aspect of police work and agrees that an officer who takes longer than a millisecond to react may suffer severe consequences," the report said.

"When an individual commits to a career in law enforcement, the specter of a violent confrontation sometime in the officer's career is a real possibility."

James W. Sweeney contributed to this report


SR Police, City Dispute Fed Report

Apr. 22, 2000 © By TIM POLK and MICHAEL COIT, Santa Rosa Press Democrat Press Democrat Staff Writers

Santa Rosa police and city officials Friday rejected a federal civil rights panel's recommendation calling for the creation of an independent civilian review board to investigate police actions.

The local leaders were also critical of a process that took two years to complete -- calling it at one point a "debacle" -- and questioned the validity of a committee that spends one day in a community and tries to draw broad conclusions.

Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron said the cost of creating and maintaining a civilian review panel would be excessive, and that an existing countywide law enforcement review process makes it unnecessary.

"Is it really what's needed in this community?" Condron asked at a press conference Friday, where she and Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh outlined changes the police department has made since the hearing. "We don't think so."

Dunbaugh said such a review board would more than likely be made up of people inexperienced at interviewing or investigating, and is unnecessary because law enforcement agencies not involved in  fatal shooting carry out the investigation on the agency that is involved.

"We do not investigate ourselves," Dunbaugh said. "The scrutiny is tremendous."

Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins said he's not opposed to the idea of a citizens review board if public officials give it the resources and power it would need.

"If you set up a citizens review board it has to have a stable funding mechanism and it has to have subpoena powers. Otherwise it's just not going to work," he said.

He reiterated that the District Attorney's Office conducts independent investigations of all police shootings in Sonoma County.

The 61-page report, prepared by the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, was written based on testimony gathered during a hearing in Santa Rosa in February 1998. The hearing was held in response to the fatal shootings of seven civilians by Sonoma County law enforcement officers in the preceding two years.

Both city and police officials said there was no follow-up by the rights panel in the months that followed the single-day hearing by commission members. Because the report is based solely on testimony given at the heated meeting -- by ardent police supporters on one side and detractors on the other -- commission critics question whether the report reflects a true picture of community-police relations.

Yvonne Lee, one of the two federal civil rights commissioners who attended the advisory committee's February hearing, defended the report.

It "was a clear representation of what was presented to us from all sides," she said Friday.

Lee acknowledged that police critics might not represent the majority of residents. But law enforcement officials should work more closely with those who don't trust them and want greater accountability, she said.

"If there are community members, who are taxpayers, who feel left out, maybe by sitting down they can work on programs that improve relations," Lee said.

"We have made recommendations and we hope that all sides will work together, because I think everyone wants a safe community."

The report, scheduled to be released sometime in May, was obtained Thursday by the Press Democrat. The full report is available on the Press Democrat Web site, at www.pressdemocrat.com.

While law enforcement officials questioned the need for and the cost of creating such an independent review board, Suzanne Regalado, executive director of the Sonoma County Center for Peace and Justice, said the cost of not having one is too great and potentially hurtful to the community.

"It's going to create so much distrust in the community -- and one of the huge points in the report is that there is a lack of confidence in law enforcement and distrust," she said.

Mary Moore, a longtime police critic, said law enforcement officials' response to the report Friday doesn't reassure her that change is coming.

"They've just been defensive. They need to uncircle the wagons," she said.

Regalado added that the recent shooting death of a Windsor woman by sheriff's deputies shows deadly force remains a community concern.

"It hasn't lost its relevance. It's still critical," she said.

In the Windsor case, a 31-year-old woman is suspected of luring police to her home to assist in her own suicide. She pointed what appeared to be a pistol at officers and died after being shot four times by police. The object turned out to be a fake gun, painted black.

The panel's report says the community needs a civilian review board with budgetary independence, separate office locations, and the power to conduct independent investigations, including the authority to compel police officers to testify.

In addition to the creation of an independent civilian review board to explore citizen complaints of possible police misconduct or excessive force, other panel recommendations include improved procedures for filing citizen complaints; greater ethnic, gender, and language diversity among law enforcement members; and increased training in cultural diversity and domestic violence issues.

Most of these recommendations have been or are being implemented in Santa Rosa, Condron and Dunbaugh said, including the creation of a Santa Rosa neighborhood advisory board and a countywide chief's advisory board, selected by police.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and the Rohnert Park Police also were singled out in the February 1998 hearing and subsequent report. Sheriff Jim Piccinini was attending a conference Friday in Modesto and was unavailable for comment. A Rohnert Park Police spokesman said the department would have no comment until the report was read and reviewed.

The panel also suggested that the District Attorney's Office conduct a separate investigation of police cases. Currently, a member of the District Attorney's Office is part of the independent task force that investigates officer-involved shootings.

The report was based on incidents involving law enforcement officers more than four years ago. The Advisory Committee wrote that it was "appalled at the number of deadly incidents, justified or not, that have occurred."

Santa Rosa city attorney Rene Chouteau called the six officer shootings in Santa Rosa in a two-year period a "statistical aberration" and noted that in each instance the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by an independent investigation.

Dunbaugh said there have been no officer-involved shootings in the past 2¼ years in Santa Rosa. Before the Windsor case, the last shooting was in March 1998.

One possible reason for the decline in lethal shootings is the department's use of a shotgun that shoots bean bags. The gun was first made available in 1997 and has been used in at least six instances, Dunbaugh said, allowing police to subdue an aggressor without resorting to lethal force.

Despite the recommendations of the panel, and the Santa Rosa Police Department's own changes, local leaders remained critical Friday of a process that leaves the community without any contact from the commission for years.

Dunbaugh called the process a "debacle."

Assistant Sheriff Gary Zanolini said, "We're disappointed that this has taken 26 months to come out."

Luz Butraigo, an advisory committee member and a Berkeley attorney, said the report is valid.

"In terms drafting it, that's why we're here. I think it's fair. The different points of view are all there."