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Former sergeant under investigation led Rohnert Park’s aggressive role in asset seizures

Asset Seizures (2015-2017)

Rohnert Park

2017: $795,138.36

2016: $1,417,631.59

2015: $195,257.99

Total: $2,408,027.94

Sonoma County Sheriff's Office

2017: $340,185.45

2016: $848,829.47

2015: $724,389.70

Total: $1,913,404.62

Santa Rosa

2017: $167,383.36

2016: $55,865.42

2015: $386,123.14

Total: $609,371.92

CHP-Santa Rosa area

2017: $117,229.81

2016: $321,789.39

2015: $15,799.87

Total: $454,819.07

Petaluma

2017: $1,793.75

2016: $253,348.51

2015: $5,084.86

Total: $260,227.12

Multi-agency/other

2017: $0

2016: $0

2015: $320,498.33

Total: $320,498.33

Cotati

2017: $0

2016: $213,908.95

2015: $0

Total: $213,908.95

Healdsburg

2017: $7,418.36

2016: $115,950.32

2015: $44,193.31

Total: $167,561.99

Cloverdale

2017: $28,480.59

2016: $0

2015: $1,739.17

Total: $30,219.76

Sebastopol

2017: $0

2016: $20,050.59

2015: $0

Total: $20,050,59

Source: California Department of Justice

Over the past three years, Rohnert Park's police officers have seized more cash and valuable assets from motorists and others suspected of breaking the law than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County. The total came to more than $2.4 million, nearly as much as the top two largest agencies combined.

In just one of those years, 2016, the record $1.4 million in assets seized by Rohnert Park amounted to 25 times more than what was confiscated by Sonoma County's largest city police force, Santa Rosa, which has two and half times more officers than Rohnert Park.

Many of the seizures happened along a remote stretch of Highway 101 near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line - more than 40 miles from Rohnert Park city limits. The traffic operations by Rohnert Park were ratcheted up even amid struggles to fully staff the department of 71-sworn officers and firefighters. They increased even as other local law enforcement agencies curbed or stopped their efforts, reflecting changes in state marijuana laws and a shift by local prosecutors away from taking lower-level marijuana cases to trial.

Rohnert Park's asset seizures also buck nationwide trends. Law enforcement officers across the country have steadily been seizing less cash annually from people, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics that show a 27 percent drop in money seized between 2012 and 2016.

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Rohnert Park's aggressive, outsized role in such operations has come into sharp focus this year after the city's Public Safety Department launched an investigation in April into its top interdiction officer, Sgt. Brendon “Jacy” Tatum, who resigned in June after being on leave for nearly three months.

Tatum's boss, Rohnert Park Public Safety Department Director Brian Masterson, has refused to speak with The Press Democrat about the former sergeant, or answer questions about the city's Highway 101 traffic stops or his management of the department in general.

Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz, in an email response to The Press Democrat's questions, said that Rohnert Park participated in highway missions to “reduce drug trafficking.” He said they stopped those missions after a January 2017 meeting with prosecutors, who gave guidance on new procedures for asset forfeiture and marijuana enforcement priorities following marijuana's legalization.

“Rohnert Park participated in these efforts to reduce the flow of illegal drugs to Sonoma County, including the City of Rohnert Park,” Schwartz said in an email.

The highway operations have helped boost Rohnert Park's public safety budget, which was about $20 million for the fiscal year that ended in June. The budget included about $200,000 of asset forfeiture funds allocated to spend on public safety vehicles, according to Schwartz.

State and federal civil asset forfeiture laws give law enforcement a powerful tool to use against suspected drug traffickers by targeting their finances. Police can seize cash and other assets from people never convicted of a crime.

The seized cash and other valuables also help support the finances of local police agencies and district attorney offices, some struggling with tight budgets.

Critics of the laws allowing police to take people's property, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have said they create incentives for police to focus on profit rather than cases that result in convictions.

Highway interdiction in Sonoma County has primarily targeted people trafficking marijuana and cash along Highway 101 from Northern California's prime cannabis-growing region to large urban populations in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. But as a result, officers trying to interdict illegal drugs and black-market cash have also seized property from people trying to comply with the state's evolving set of medical marijuana laws.

“Anyone who has cannabis in their car is treated like they've done something wrong,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “That's persisted long after California decriminalized cannabis in 2010 and long after voters legalized cannabis in 2016. It embodies the failed war on drugs (and law enforcement agencies) that just won't quit.”

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From 2015 to 2017, Rohnert Park reported a total of more than $2.4 million in seized cash and other assets, state records show. By comparison, in the Sheriff's Office, Sonoma County's largest law enforcement agency, with 230 field deputies - more than three times the number on patrol for Rohnert Park - reported in the same period a total of just over $1.9 million in seized assets. Santa Rosa, with 180 officers, reported forfeitures valued at more than $600,000, and Petaluma's 60-officer force reported seizures worth $260,000.

Asset Seizures (2015-2017)

Rohnert Park

2017: $795,138.36

2016: $1,417,631.59

2015: $195,257.99

Total: $2,408,027.94

Sonoma County Sheriff's Office

2017: $340,185.45

2016: $848,829.47

2015: $724,389.70

Total: $1,913,404.62

Santa Rosa

2017: $167,383.36

2016: $55,865.42

2015: $386,123.14

Total: $609,371.92

CHP-Santa Rosa area

2017: $117,229.81

2016: $321,789.39

2015: $15,799.87

Total: $454,819.07

Petaluma

2017: $1,793.75

2016: $253,348.51

2015: $5,084.86

Total: $260,227.12

Multi-agency/other

2017: $0

2016: $0

2015: $320,498.33

Total: $320,498.33

Cotati

2017: $0

2016: $213,908.95

2015: $0

Total: $213,908.95

Healdsburg

2017: $7,418.36

2016: $115,950.32

2015: $44,193.31

Total: $167,561.99

Cloverdale

2017: $28,480.59

2016: $0

2015: $1,739.17

Total: $30,219.76

Sebastopol

2017: $0

2016: $20,050.59

2015: $0

Total: $20,050,59

Source: California Department of Justice

Some of those funds are distributed to the state and other agencies, including the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office. Rohnert Park kept about $1.2 million from 2016 through 2017, according to state records.

It's unclear how many officers were involved in Rohnert Park's highway interdiction operations. Court and police records show Tatum was often the main officer involved in the seizures, regularly operating with a junior officer as his partner.

Over the same period, from mid-2016 to the fiscal year that ended last month, overtime costs rose to nearly 10 percent of the department's budget - to $1.9 million - for the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department, which has struggled to fill shifts and remains short by 12 people through vacancies and administrative or medical leaves.

Schwartz said the cost increase was partly attributable to a pay raise and the city's bid to recruit experienced public safety candidates. In May, it approved a $20,000 bonus to help recruit seasoned police officers.

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The investigation of Tatum and the public scrutiny it has unleashed comes at a time when the Rohnert Park police and firefighting force is being closely analyzed by a Washington, D.C.-based consultant hired by the city. City officials approved about $116,620 to cover the cost of the broad review, which is looking at the department's effectiveness.

Other departments across Sonoma County years ago halted their efforts in highway interdiction stops. Short staffing and evolving laws governing asset forfeiture and drugs, including marijuana, were influential factors.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch made it clear at the outset of her tenure in 2011 that marijuana cases would be a low priority for her office apart from significant black-market drug investigations.

“There has been an incredible influx of heroin and methamphetamine to our county and marijuana can occur in the context of other substances,” Ravitch said in a recent interview about her office's forfeiture policies.

In 2014 and again in 2016, Ravitch issued memos to local law enforcement agencies explaining higher thresholds police must meet to seize assets and changes to the laws that limit the autonomy of officers seeking to take property during roadside stops.

Tight staffing levels were a concern when Santa Rosa police in 2014 stopped sending its officers to Highway 101 on such missions, Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said.

Officers from Santa Rosa, Petaluma, the CHP, the Sheriff's Office and other agencies used to work together to stop the flow of drugs through Sonoma County as part of a countywide task force.

Schreeder said as time went on more of the cases weren't being prosecuted, which added to the decision to stop involvement. He said he never viewed the missions as a way of bolstering his department's budget.

“I would not consider asset forfeiture a cash cow,” Schreeder said. “There's revenue there, but it's used for specific purposes, such as education, training and acquiring investigative tools used throughout the department. But the asset forfeiture piece, even that law has changed.”

According to Schwartz, Rohnert Park's assistant city manager, the city stopped its interdiction operations after a January meeting last year with prosecutors. But as late as December, Rohnert Park officers - Tatum and another officer - were pulling cars over on Highway 101 near the Mendocino-Sonoma county line.

Tatum said they were conducting surveillance for a case, and just happened to pull over a vehicle with 30 pounds of cannabis and a driver who couldn't provide a lawful reason for having that amount of pot in the vehicle.

The internal investigation into Tatum was launched by a separate December traffic stop on Highway 101, this one in Mendocino County.

The driver in that case, a former Texas school district police officer, said he believes the still-unidentified officers who pulled him over wrongly seized his marijuana. He has complained to multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

The driver's name appeared on a Rohnert Park police report written by Tatum early this year, months after the stop. Tatum has said he wasn't involved in the stop and had mistakenly included the man's name in his report.

The 15-year law enforcement veteran, once decorated by the city for his role intercepting drugs and cash on the highway, defended the missions as a key tool to stop the flow of illegal drugs.

“Our goal was just to deter and disrupt illegal activity and not just drugs but illegal contraband,” Tatum said.

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