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.