How the death of George Floyd changed Sonoma County
In the year since the horrific murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer sparked international outrage and demands for overarching societal change, much of the work to reform police practices, improve social justice and eliminate institutional racism is still underway.
Officials in Sonoma County’s two largest cities, Santa Rosa and Petaluma, say that while they’ve made strides in the aftermath of Floyd’s death to better understand community concerns about policing and institutional racism, the open conversations needed to drive future policy changes must continue.
The two cities, as well as Rohnert Park, have each secured consulting contracts allowing their police departments to reroute calls that involve mental health or homeless issues away from police officers to civilian workers who are trained to provide social services. This process, experts say, eases the demand on police officers who are focused on maintaining law and order and are not readily equipped to handle social service situations.
The first of these pilot programs in Sonoma County could roll out as early as the end of June.
The demonstrations that took place in the county last summer, the largest and most pervasive in decades, also brought forth a new generation of local activists who helped spearhead the ballot measure passed overwhelmingly last fall to boost the financial and oversight authority of Sonoma County’s independent law enforcement auditor, a lead organizer behind the effort said.
In addition, other local leaders say the anniversary on Tuesday of Floyd’s death once again highlights the ongoing reality Black people and other communities of color experience throughout America — that despite the increased attention to police practices, police officers continue to kill people of color.
“Every day, you wake up and hear another story and see another video,” said Delashay Carmona-Benson, an Afro-Latina activist and student body president at Santa Rosa Junior College. “Imagine waking up every morning and another one of your people are killed. George Floyd did wake up America somewhat, but there were people before George and after George.”
In Santa Rosa, a community engagement effort launched as a direct response to the local protests resulted in conversations among 280 residents, mostly people of color, about what would make them feel safer in the city they live in.
Called the Community Empowerment Plan, the project is led by the city’s Community Engagement Division. Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro and Santa Rosa City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a retired Santa Rosa police chief, also attended several of those community discussions.
“When I heard some people say they have been stopped by the SRPD and the first words out of the officer’s mouths were: ’Are you on probation or parole?’ … I can assure I’ve never started a traffic stop like that,” said Schwedhelm, who is white. “But I heard it more than once, so I know it’s happening.”
Community Engagement Division Director Magali Telles presented her staff’s findings and a series of recommendations made by residents to the Santa Rosa City Council earlier this month.
It was done during a two-day special meeting to discuss the Santa Rosa Police Department’s handling of last year’s summer protests, in which officers deployed an unparalleled number of less-lethal munitions and tear gas canisters to control crowds, seriously injuring some demonstrators. The city agreed last month to pay a record $1.9 million to five people injured by police in the protests, including a man whose face was shattered by a sting ball grenade.
Telles said the recommendations of her division included creating a civilian oversight panel to monitor the city’s police department and requiring cultural competency and systemic racism training for elected officials and members of the city’s boards and commissions.
The list of suggestions are to be rerouted to the council’s public safety committee for further consideration.
“It’s so monumental,” Telles said of the discussion. “When else in the history of the city of Santa Rosa have you had two women of color openly talking about how there’s systemic racism in this institution? We as a government are acknowledging that there is systemic racism.”