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Sonoma County Police Brutality- How Do We Compare?

Sonoma County Police Brutality - How Do We Compare?

By Scott Wagner

No one wants police brutality, especially police management. Everyone agrees that even a little is too much. But how does our situation here compare with other Californian and America cities? Are we good? Great? Terrible? 

That's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The information one would use to compare areas are distorted badly by no standard definitions, underreporting of problems (yes, to make the area seem safe- but also because it’s hard to keep track of things), and simply not collecting some important information, like information on normal stops, or complaints, or certain kinds of deaths. Researchers also speak of a reticence on the part of police departments and the local, state, and federal governments to provide information. In a recent speech by the head of the FBI, he said police reporting is so bad that it was impossible to tell if there were one or a hundred police shootings in Ferguson, MO last year. Even if we had that kind of information, it’s hard to tell which were proper use of force.

Recent history provides some insight. In 2000, The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights did hearings here on our police brutality. Afterwards, one Commissioner stated that "there has rarely been, in my experience, a situation so polarized as Sonoma County, where one side so vehemently denies that there is a problem at all". The Commission left a laundry list of tasks for the Sheriff and local police forces to work on. 13 years later, over a dozen local nonprofit organizations sent a letter to the Commission asking them to return because, according to them, none of the recommendations had been followed.

Yet another request for civil rights hearings is being readied again, probably influenced by simple economics. The county is potentially facing an estimated 20-30 million dollars of taxpayer expense through a pending federal lawsuit by the family of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old shot by a Deputy in late 2013. It's a lawsuit the county can't possibly win, and every admission of error could potentially mean millions more in costs. For the medium-term, the county seems to be taking the position that procedures need no changes, that reassigning the officer involved wasn’t appropriate, and that officials can only speak in certain terms about Andy Lopez (as a tragedy, but in the act-of-God sense, not in the sense of possible error, or trying to learn from it). Minimizing lawsuit costs also minimizes the emphasis on many of the normal means to improve, like training changes, publicizing of improvements, public conversations with government about the incident, or restorative justice (frank meetings that include apologizing for errors, along with other ways to promote community healing). A move to name a park near Andy Lopez’s old home after him is encountering resistance, perhaps because doing so might have influence lawsuit results, or have other political fallout.

These techniques keep outsiders out; they keep internal workings secret, and maintain strong, centralized control. This hardening toward influence is in sharp contrast with some departments like Los Angeles, San Diego, or Richmond, as was seen at recent California Public Safety hearings on police and the community. That comparison has thrown the local activist community into a tizzy, and the community-at-large shows significant pockets of fear of their police now, especially in minority communities.

In discussions of potential police brutality, many focus on killings, but experts note that angry, unpredictable treatment or targeting is brutality’s more common face. In the Latino community, the death of Andy Lopez seems to have opened wounds that hadn't fully healed from deaths in the past; in the last year, thousands have signed petitions for the removal or punishment of Deputy Sheriff Gelhaus, who shot Andy Lopez. So from the activist community's standpoint, Sonoma County is worse than most counties. It's an assessment that's shared by some Latino activists from other areas, many of whom have protested here recently, even though traveling to protest is unusual.

Chris Wroth has volunteered at the Andy Lopez Petition at the county courthouse ever since shortly after Lopez’s death in 2013. During the time I interviewed him, two women came up to the table separately and told him in broken English that they were frightened by the police; one asked what she should do. Mr. Wroth told me that similar conversations are a daily occurrence at the exhibit. I had come to ask him about statistics, but it was difficult to think of numbers after hearing the ladies speak. 

There is hope. California state may start investigating all officer-caused fatalities if a popular bill gets passed next year, which may help citizens feel investigations are more fair. Soon, the state will likely create reporting standards and a central office of police records thanks to a bill that has little strong opposition, so we can compare departments and regions fairly, and identify important hidden trends. Locally, volunteers have been working very hard for the Board of Supervisors on the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force to create independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Office, and are just preparing their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

In their proposal, the oversight group will have no direct power, which is normal; instead, they will audit internal investigations for fairness, and make recommendations about procedures, officer discipline, training, etc. Much more light will be thrown onto the Sheriff’s Office, with new information made available through reports, and some likely healthy influence here and there. The county is hoping that similar oversight can expand to our city police forces.

Will these potential changes fix all the problems? Probably not, but they may help Sonoma County catch up a little. If not, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission will keep fielding invitations to return, or refer us to the Federal Department of Justice, as has happened in Los Angeles, Newark, and other cities, where great strides were made after DOJ intervention.


For more information, contact: Scott Wagner 707 235 8259