Santa Rosa police critics question legal defense of officer in 2007 killing
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 8:20 a.m.
Critics of the Santa Rosa Police Department called for a full accounting of the city's legal defense in the fatal shooting of Richard DeSantis and said the officer involved should be fired.
A small group of activists addressed the City Council on Tuesday, five days after a federal jury found a Santa Rosa police sergeant violated the civil rights of DeSantis when he fatally shot the unarmed man outside his Roseland home in 2007.
They urged the city not to continue spending money to appeal the case, which is five years old and has already been petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think we need to cut our losses and move on," said Robert Edmonds, an outspoken critic of police on issues ranging from use of force to gang prevention.
Edmonds said it was a "poke in the eye" to residents of the city for Santa Rosa officials to continue to deny officers did anything wrong when a federal jury just found otherwise.
Attila Nagy, who last year took police to task for a SWAT display that allowed young children to handle high-powered weapons, said he, too, was concerned the city would spend more money defending the case given the city's financial constraints.
He said the use of lethal force in the case troubled him. "Any officer who does wrongful death like that can't be on the force," Nagy said.
Council members, who later went behind closed doors to discuss the status of the case, did not reply to the speakers.
But Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, who attended the two-week trial, defended not only the officer found liable in the case, Sgt. Richard Celli, but the other officers involved in the shooting as "very valuable members of our organization who acted in the appropriate fashion."
He noted that a thorough investigation by the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office cleared the officers of wrongdoing. Nothing he heard at trial changed his opinion that the shooting, while tragic, was justified.
DeSantis was shot after he charged officers who responded to his wife's 911 call reporting that he was "manic" and shooting a handgun into the ceiling of their South Avenue home. After initially complying with officers' instructions, DeSantis charged officers and was shot, first with a rubber bullet and then by Celli and two other officers.
Celli testified that even though he never saw a gun, he had to assume DeSantis was still armed. Celli was the only officer found liable in the case because the evidence showed he fired the fatal shot.
Eric Safire, the attorney for DeSantis' family, said police had other options than to shoot "an unarmed mental patient." DeSantis had been diagnosed as bipolar and had stopped taking his medication, according to trial testimony.
The eight-member jury found Celli did not have a "legitimate law enforcement purpose" for the shooting and awarded his wife, young daughter and mother a total of $512,000.
At the council meeting, City Attorney Caroline Fowler called Edmonds' statements about how much the city had spent defending the case "false and misleading."
Edmonds has told supporters that the city "has spent over $1 million defending" Celli and now planned to spent "hundreds of thousands more" appealing the case.
But Fowler noted that she personally tried the case.
"My salary is paid by the city whether I am litigating or whether I am attending to other matters," she said.
Edmonds said his $1 million estimate included the judgment amount, Fowler's time, trial costs, and attorney fees that Safire has estimated add up to "thousands of hours."
"That's gotta be in the ballpark of a million dollars," Edmond said.
Fowler has said she doesn't have a breakdown of the city's legal costs to date in the case. She said the decision whether to appeal the case won't rest solely with the city but also with the insurance plan that covers losses above $500,000.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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