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Anger, concern mount over Santa Rosa police use of rubber bullets, other less-lethal control devices on protesters

Marqus Martinez was kneeling in the middle of Mendocino Avenue, his face covered by the red bandana that soon would be soaked with his blood.

The 33-year-old father of five arrived for last Sunday night's protest at Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square with a purpose: to call attention to the issue of police brutality. It has become a flashpoint in the fervent demonstrations in this country, and around the world, following the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day as he was being arrested by four Minneapolis police officers, who have since been charged in his killing.

Around midnight on Sunday, roughly an hour after giving protesters the order to disperse, police launched tear gas in the direction of where Martinez was kneeling, just north of College Avenue. Standing up, he began recording a Facebook Live video on his cellphone when he was hit in the face with what he thinks was a sting-ball grenade, a tennis-ball sized device city police apparently were using to control the crowd. The impact shattered his front teeth - upper and lower - fractured facial bones, and split the flesh from his upper lip to the bridge of his nose.

“It was like a little bomb went off in my mouth,” recalled Martinez, of Santa Rosa. He required two rounds of reconstructive surgery to remove fragments of broken teeth embedded in his lips, tongue and the roof of his mouth.

Martinez is one of at least three protesters hit in the face or head by projectiles fired by Santa Rosa police officers last weekend. As police departments across the country responded to a scale of civil unrest not seen in half a century, the use - and sometimes abuse - of these tools has emerged as a national concern.

Santa Rosa police said they are aware of all three incidents. They are actively investigating Martinez's case, Police Chief Ray Navarro said, declining further comment.

On Saturday, the night before Martinez was injured, and a few blocks south, 20-year-old Michaela Staggs was struck just over her left eye with a projectile, leaving a wound that required several stitches to close. The following night, also at the intersection of Mendocino and College, 24-year-old Ryland Stamey was hit by what he believes was a rubber bullet that left a crescent-shaped wound in the middle of his forehead. Despite bleeding profusely, Stamey didn't seek medical attention.

All three acknowledge that they were protesting after being informed by police using megaphones that they were participating in an unlawful assembly.

But the location of each of their wounds raises questions about how closely the officers deploying these control devices - rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and, possibly, sting-ball grenades - followed their training “to control subjects who are violent or demonstrate the intent to be violent,” according to Policy 308 in the Santa Rosa Police Department's manual.

“No projectile should be aimed at the head,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who served as the city's chief of police from 2009 to 2013 and adopted the policy a decade ago.

“We never aim for the head,” Navarro said, adding that these munitions designed for crowd control should be directed at the torso, or the legs of their target.

That said, Navarro pointed out, “these were very hectic and chaotic situations.” Santa Rosa police officers reported being pelted during the protests, which erupted last Saturday night and then continued on seven consecutive nights, with bricks, rocks and bottles. At least one officer was hit with a metal trash lid, the chief said. Another was struck in the leg by a large firework. To restore calm following a weekend of tumult, the city imposed a curfew Monday through Thursday from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“We don't want anyone to get hurt,” said Navarro, who took a knee early last week with protesters during a peaceful youth rally on the square. But if there is resistance to dispersal orders, if his officers are being “assaulted,” he said, “then there are tools we have.”

Widespread accounts of demonstrators injured and maimed by so-called “less-lethal” rounds, as police refer to rubber bullets and other projectiles - while they were protesting excessive use of police force - have stoked escalating anger and still louder demands for reform in Sonoma County and nationwide.

Santa Rosa police Lt. Jeanene Kucker confirmed the department is aware of the injuries suffered by Martinez, Staggs and Stamey.

Even as an investigation goes on, reform is already afoot. Schwedhelm this week signed a pledge created by My Brother's Keeper Alliance, an initiative created by former President Barack Obama. The mayor promised to evaluate the police department's use-of-force policies, engage a diverse section of the community during the city review, report its findings, and if necessary, reform the police department's use-of-force policies.

Cause for alarm

On Friday evening, a U.S. District Court judge in Colorado granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the use of “chemical weapons or projectiles of any kind against persons engaging in peaceful protests or demonstrations.”

The order applies to the Denver Police Department, which plaintiffs alleged had violated their First Amendment right to free speech and their Fourth Amendment right against excessive force. Five days earlier, ex-Atlanta Braves All-Star Dale Murphy reported on Twitter his son had been hit in the eye by a rubber bullet while protesting in Denver. Murphy credited a stranger who drove his son to the hospital emergency room with saving the young man's eye.

Linda Tirado was less fortunate: the freelance photographer was permanently blinded in her left eye after being hit by a rubber bullet while covering a protest in Minneapolis on May 29.

On the same day, a 29-year-old mother of two was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet while protesting in Sacramento. On May 30, a 59-year-old woman was recording a protest on her phone in La Mesa when she was struck between the eyes with a projectile.

Alarmed and angered by the rising number of such incidents, four California legislators, including Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announced Thursday they will introduce a bill that will establish strict, clear standards regulating the use of “less-lethal” rounds.

“No one who is simply exercising their right to protest should face possible injury or death because officers are indiscriminately firing rubber bullets into a crowd,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said in a statement. “Breaking a city- imposed curfew is not a sufficient basis for use of rubber bullets.”

Police use-of-force involves a spectrum that begins with the mere presence of a uniformed officer and moves all the way up to the use of deadly force. The use of rubber bullets and other crowd control devices “are really just slightly below the use of deadly force,” said Brian Higgins, a security consultant and former police chief who is now an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “And we now know they can be deadly.”

A 2017 study published in the medical journal The BMJ found that 3% of people around the globe struck by rubber bullets died of the injury. Fifteen percent of 1,984 people in the study suffered permanent injury.

Higgins also points out that the “less-lethal” rubber bullets, which range from hard foam rounds to a highly dense plastic, are designed as “direct impact rounds” - that is, they're not intended to be fired indiscriminately into a crowd.

‘Militarization' of police

That makes Michaela Staggs' wound harder to explain. Staggs, a Santa Rosa resident, arrived for the May 30 protest around 9 p.m. She was happy to have a mask, to help her cope with “three or four rounds” of tear gas directed at protesters nearby on Mendocino Avenue. As the police pushed and herded protesters north, they also used “less-lethal rounds.” Staggs noticed a couple of guys, apparently struck by rubber bullets, “running away holding their butts.”

As the police marched forward, she recalled, “they would slap their batons on their hands like they're warriors, and they were coming for us.”

Fearful of getting hurt, she was about to vacate the area, she said, when someone called her name. As she looked to her left, she was hit in the face by a projectile.

“I thought it was a tear gas canister,” said Staggs. “I saw sparks, and my ears were ringing so bad I couldn't hear anything.”

When hit, she was in the middle of the street. “I don't think it was an accident,” she said. “The only thing menacing about me,” she said, “is that I was wearing a black hoodie. I have pretty short hair. Maybe they thought I was a guy.”

Some 24 hours later, Ryland Stamey stood not far from where Marqus Martinez had been hit. Across the Mendocino and College intersection was a line of police in riot gear. From behind that line, Stamey noticed, one officer in particular “kept popping up and aiming directly at me.”

Stamey said he was shouting to that officer, “Don't shoot, there are women near me!” when he took a rubber bullet to the forehead.

Stamey thinks he was targeted, but doesn't know why. Perhaps it was because he kept trying to take pictures of the police front line with his cellphone. Often, he noticed, when a protester did try to take their picture, officers would “all turn on their flashlights, so it completely washes out the picture.”

Martinez, Staggs and Stamey all insist they were protesting peacefully, even if they had been ordered to disperse. Does their presence on the street, in those circumstances, justify their being shot with projectiles?

Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers has called for a public discussion of that and other issues tied to the police use of force during last week's demonstrations.

He wants to know, first, which police agency was using rubber bullets and other control devices on protesters. Navarro said Santa Rosa police officers trained in the use of control devices had deployed bean bags, rubber bullets and tear gas. Martinez, who is certain he was hit with a sting-ball grenade, said he is in possession of the one that hit him and showed a reporter what he said was a picture of it. Navarro did not rule out the possibility that some sting-ball grenades were used against protesters.

Sonoma County sheriff's deputies used tear gas “on two separate occasions” during the recent protests, said sheriff's Sgt. Juan Valencia, but expended only one “less-lethal” projectile, as rubber bullets are known, and one pepper ball. Asked if deputies were aware of having injured any protesters with those rounds, Valencia replied in a text, “Nothing in the report.”

While some CHP officers have such munitions, they were not deployed against Santa Rosa protesters, CHP spokesman David de Rutte said.

In addition to posing larger questions about the “militarization” of the police force - which Rogers thinks goes against the grain of the Santa Rosa police department's culture of community policing - he will ask why rubber bullets and other projectiles were used, and how deescalation methods might have prevented that use.

“I don't' think peaceful protesters should ever have those measures used against them,” he said.

To characterize some of these events as peaceful, said Navarro, of the protesters roaming the city late Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, is inaccurate. “It's been far from peaceful.”

Less-lethal rounds, Kucker explained in an email, “are used on individuals or crowds who pose immediate or potential threats. People holding weapons, throwing weapons,” in addition to those picking up tear gas canisters, which can then be thrown back at police. “If someone chose to be a part of that crowd late Sunday night, they were being dispersed because of their apparent threat to us along with a larger threatening crowd.”

Waking people up

Yet, “peaceful” is how Martinez describes his behavior the night his mouth was shattered. After he was hit, Martinez was driven by a friend to the emergency room at Santa Rosa's Memorial Hospital. He was afraid to look at his face. “It felt like it was gone,” he said. When he did look, he saw a “gaping hole” where the projectile had split the flesh between his upper lip and nose.

“I could move my tongue and feel pieces of broken teeth” - pieces of which periodically fell out of his mouth. He held his head as still as possible, he recalls, “because I didn't want anything else falling out.”

He spoke to a Press Democrat reporter Friday in the Sebastopol offices of his attorney, Izaak Schwaiger, who represented Martinez in a 2015 police brutality case. Martinez joined a civil rights lawsuit filed by inmates at Sonoma County Jail, alleging that they were beaten and tortured by masked guards. The county settled the so-called “yard counseling” case for $1.7 million. The Sheriff's Office also retrained its jail staff on use-of-force procedures, installed cameras in common areas of the jail and purchased body-worn cameras for sworn corrections personnel.

At that time, Martinez was serving six months on a domestic violence charge. Before that, he said, “drugs and alcohol were ruining my life.” Going to prison, he said, “was a good thing. I ended up getting my life together.” He went into a program, he said, and has been clean and sober ever since.

These days, he said, “I don't do anything but take care of my kids and follow my culture” as a proud member of the Pomo nation.

He is passionate about speaking out against police brutality and the need for equal justice. His latest injury, he believes, will raise the issue's profile.

“I have a strong spirit,” Martinez said. “Even though I go through suffering, it's gonna wake people up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ryland Stamey was hit by a projectile on June 1 shortly after midnight. A previous version of this story contained the wrong date.

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