Meeting over Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in-custody death draws large, critical crowd

Outrage over the death of a Sonoma County man, who was declared dead about an hour after two local deputies attempted to pry him out of his car last November in a violent interaction, dominated conversation during a recent community meeting held by the county’s Sheriff’s Office watchdog.

About 50 people attended Monday’s town hall hosted by Sonoma County’s independent law enforcement auditor, Karlene Navarro, at the Sonoma Human Services’ Petaluma location.

Navarro, whose oversight office was created in 2015 in response to a fatal deputy-?involved shooting of a Santa Rosa teen two years before, said she organized the meeting after learning that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office would release video of the in-custody death of Bloomfield resident David Ward, 52.

The footage, made public just over three weeks after the Nov. 27 in-custody death, showed how Sonoma County Deputy Charles Blount rammed Ward’s head into the frame of his 2003 Honda Civic twice and then wrapped his arm around Ward’s neck for about a minute in an attempt to get him out of the car.

Ward had reported his car stolen by a man with a gun days earlier, but neither Blount, the second deputy, nor two Sebastopol police officers who also responded knew Ward was the car’s owner and that he had recovered it, authorities said.

The second deputy, Jason Little, also attempted to get Ward out of the car and fired his electro-shock weapon at Ward twice before Ward was pulled out of the vehicle. Dispatchers were notified Ward did not appear to be breathing and CPR was started. Ward, who was taken to a hospital, was declared dead about an hour later.

Navarro said she anticipated the footage, which was accompanied by news that Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick intended to fire Blount as a result of his actions during the vehicle stop, would be traumatic for Sonoma County residents to watch and she wanted to provide a venue for people to express their opinions about what they saw.

“We can all sit in a room and be an echo chamber,” Navarro said after the meeting. “Or we can sit down and talk about (the in-custody death), pluck out good ideas, put them together in an organized fashion and take them to the sheriff and say, ‘This is what the community wants.’? ”

Attendees of Monday’s meeting shared frustrations over the circumstances surrounding Ward’s death, though some also aimed their criticism at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which did not send an employee to the gathering.

That fact angered several people who attended, including Elizabeth Cozine, a former member of the community council that Navarro oversees.

“Where is the sheriff tonight?” Cozine said during the meeting. “I am shocked over that.”

In an emailed response, Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said Sheriff’s Office representatives do not attend meetings held by Navarro because the agency does not want to interfere with her mission “to talk with people who might not feel comfortable talking to law enforcement.”

Additionally, he said department officials are not allowed to discuss Ward’s death publicly right now, but that Navarro is sharing residents’ feedback with the Sheriff’s Office.

Other attendees pointed to prior reporting from The Press Democrat, which showed Blount had been a defendant in two federal civil rights lawsuits in which the plaintiffs accused Blount of using excessive force. Both cases resulted in settlements.

Evan Zelig, a local criminal defense attorney who has been appointed to the council, noted that while the Sheriff’s Office’s use-of-force policy provides a detailed explanation for when deputies can use force on a suspect, the document fails to go into equal detail about how and when officers should try to deescalate a situation.

“There’s nothing that says ‘Before you use force try by all reasonable means to deescalate that situation,’?” Zelig said. “Overall, the system and the culture of the sheriff’s department needs to be corrected.”

Valencia rebutted the notion that the Sheriff’s Office has a culture of using excessive force, saying agency data showed deputies were using less force overall. Data he provided showed that 0.24% of all law enforcement contacts in 2017 resulted in deputies using force, compared to 0.30% in 2009.

“We look at each use-of-force incident to make sure it was within policy,” Valencia wrote in the email. “If not, we discipline the deputy appropriately.”

Blount, who is appealing Essick’s decision to fire him, will be allowed to dispute any allegations of wrongdoing during an internal hearing before any decision about discipline is made. The hearing, known as a Skelly hearing, is not open to the public.

Harry Stern, the San Francisco lawyer representing Blount, wrote in an email that he gave his condolences to Ward’s family but that “Mr. Ward’s inexplicable behavior only confirmed Dep. Blount’s belief that he was dealing with an armed carjacker.”

The Marin County Coroner’s Office had not determined Ward’s cause of death as of Tuesday, office spokesman Chief Deputy Roger Fielding said. The Santa Rosa Police Department, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Ward’s death, is still reviewing the case, Santa Rosa Lt. Dan Marincik said.

The results of the Sheriff Office’s internal affairs investigation, which will review whether deputies at the scene followed department protocol, are still pending, according to Valencia. Once it is completed and the department determines what, if any, discipline it will take as a result of the in-custody death, the investigation will be forwarded to Navarro for an audit.

Navarro is in the process of collecting community input about the in-custody death, as well as the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s use-of-force policy, through a questionnaire that is available on her office’s website. The feedback will be forwarded to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and will be made public to community members, she said.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   


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