Lack of training, discipline by Sonoma County helped lead to fatal shooting by deputy, federal lawsuit claims

Sonoma County’s poor supervision, training and disciplining of sheriff’s deputies and a “code of silence” around their use of force contributed to the fatal shooting of David Peláez-Chavez by Deputy Michael Dietrick, a federal lawsuit alleges.

Family members of Peláez-Chavez, who was killed on July 29 after a 45-minute chase through rough terrain, allege his civil rights were violated in the shooting.

The 15-page lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court Northern District of California, seeks unspecified damages from Sonoma County and Dietrick.

“What’s in doubt and what we alleged is whether there was any possible justification for the killing,” civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who represents the plaintiffs, said Monday.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said officials would not comment on the lawsuit and would respond to its allegations in court. Sonoma County’s chief spokesperson, Paul Gullixson, did not respond to voicemails seeking comment.

The lawsuit also accuses Sonoma County of encouraging excessive force, inadequately training deputies, hiring staff with problematic histories and maintaining poor procedures to report and investigate deputies who misbehave.

“Despite us raising this issue again and again in litigation, pressing little has been done to address it,” Schwaiger said.

Peláez-Chavez was shot three times by Dietrick, who, along with Deputy Anthony Powers chased the 36-year-old farmworker for 45 minutes over rugged terrain near Geyserville on July 29.

Authorities said a barefoot Peláez-Chavez fled into the woods after he tried to break into a home and then stole two vehicles in Knights Valley.

Powers is not named in the lawsuit. Schwaiger noted that Powers attempted to deescalate the situation by trying to communicate with Peláez-Chavez in Spanish.

“I think he was practicing proper police tactics,” Schwaiger said of Powers.

Peláez-Chavez was holding a hammer and a garden tiller when the deputies caught up to him and he appeared to be hunched over when Dietrick shot him, according to video footage captured on the deputies’ body cameras.

According to the lawsuit, one of Dietrick’s bullets struck Peláez-Chavez in the head.

Officials have said Peláez-Chavez did not obey the deputies’ orders to drop what he carried and in his final moments he picked up a rock and made a motion to throw it at the deputies. Still, others who have viewed the footage dispute that claim and say the video is not definitive.

“David’s death was unnecessary,” his family’s lawsuit states. “While his behavior was strange and erratic, he posed no more than a hypothetical threat to anyone. Despite his bizarre behavior, at no time did he try to hurt a soul. He was plainly in an altered mental state — whether because of drugs or because of a mental health crisis is unknown at this time. He was barefoot, exhausted, and had nowhere to go. Time and distance were on the deputies’ side. Deadly force simply was not an option.”

The complaint alleges that Sonoma County policy makers encouraged “a code of silence among deputies, employees, and supervisors” around use of force cases. The complaint goes on to allege that no sheriff deputy has ever reported a colleague for using excessive force and no deputy has been disciplined for using excessive force.

Schwaiger, who has sued Sonoma County over most of deputy’s most harmful or deadly actions against citizens in recent years, said in an interview that the statements were backed by information he’d learned during discovery processes in prior lawsuits.

He provided The Press Democrat with discovery documents from a separate lawsuit he is conducting on behalf of Jason Anglero-Wyrick, a Graton man badly injured by a sheriff K-9 unit in April 2020.

In those documents, the county reported 1,513 uses of force by sheriff’s deputies from December 2016 to April 2022. While all those incidents underwent an administrative review, sheriff’s officials claimed they were unable to identify how many were found to be in violation of departmental policy.

In another set of discovery responses, the county conceded it had not found any deputies in violation of use of force policies from December 2016 to April 4, 2020, the date of the Angelo-Wyrick incident. During the same time frame, officials stated no deputies had reported unreasonable use of force by their colleagues.

“Putting it all together paints a really gnarly picture,” Schwaiger said. “You have (more than a thousand) uses of force and no discipline for it.”

Department spokesperson Sgt. Juan Valencia declined to respond to the allegations in the Peláez-Chavez complaint, citing policy against discussing active litigation.

Schwaiger contends a sheriff’s deputy has never been disciplined over a use of force violation.

In two high-profile cases, Sheriff Mark Essick, who today is beginning his last two months in office, has called for officers to be fired following controversial uses of force, but it’s not clear if discipline was ever imposed.

In a 2016 use of force against Sonoma Valley resident Fernando Del Valle, Essick, then a captain, investigated and found then-deputy Scott Thorne violated department policy. He moved for his dismissal from the department and later testified against him in a criminal trial.

The Press Democrat reported Thorne was fired, but department officials declined to confirm his termination at the time. The deputy was on a probationary period when he shocked a man in his bed with a stun gun and later hit him with a baton.

On Nov. 27, 2019, Bloomfield resident David Ward died when Deputy Charles Blount pulled him from his own car using a now-banned choke hold and another officer shot him with a stun gun. Essick quickly called publicly for Blount to be fired, but the deputy retired with his pension before being dismissed.

Sonoma County prosecutors brought criminal cases against both men but were unable to convince juries to find them guilty. The county paid a record $3.8 million settlement in the Ward case and $875,000 in the Del Valle case. Schwaiger litigated both cases on behalf of the victims’ families.

Local, state reactions to most recent shooting

The Santa Rosa Police Department launched a criminal investigation into the Peláez-Chavez shooting, as county protocol dictates. A decision by the California Attorney General’s Office not to look into the case has generated controversy.

Under Assembly Bill 1506, which became state law last year, the attorney general and the California Department of Justice are required to investigate deadly force by law enforcement officers against unarmed civilians.

The state AG’s Office announced it would not investigate the death of Peláez-Chavez and, in September, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office requested clarification on how the state agency reached its conclusion.

Also in September, the Community Advisory Council of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach — the Sheriff’s Office’s watchdog agency — issued a letter urging the AG’s Office to reconsider its refusal to investigate.

Last month, Attorney General Rob Bonta told The Press Democrat his office would not investigate because Peláez-Chavez did not meet the definition of unarmed since he appeared to be picking up a rock when he was shot.

Assembly member Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who sponsored AB 1506, told The Press Democrat he plans to bring a bill requiring the DOJ to investigate every law enforcement-related death statewide, regardless of whether it was a shooting death or whether the civilian was armed.

Community Advisory Council members have also lamented the status of Measure P, the measure voters approved in November 2020, which was designed to grant the county watchdog agency broad new powers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing involving the Sheriff’s Office.

It faced legal hurdles in the aftermath of its approval, but finally went into effect, unchallenged, in June when Sonoma County leaders and sheriff’s unions reached an agreement to allow it to move forward.

Critics say the current version of Measure P is watered down and, among other things, requires the watchdog agency to wait for the Sheriff’s Office to conduct its investigations into deputy actions before an independent investigation can take place.

You cna reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi