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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.

Delashay Carmona Benson during a Black Lives Matter rally at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, California, on Saturday, September 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Delashay Carmona Benson during a Black Lives Matter rally at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, California, on Saturday, September 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

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.

Magali Telles, Community Engagement Division director for the city of Santa Rosa.  (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Magali Telles, Community Engagement Division director for the city of Santa Rosa. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

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.”

Despite the huge step forward, it’s not a popular position.

A recent request for proposals seeking bids for the city’s new police auditor, Santa Rosa’s third attempt at filling the role since 2018, only netted one response, city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said. The city will re-post the job in hopes of attracting more applicants, she added.

Meanwhile in Petaluma, more than two dozen community members have been selected to help review the policies and procedures that guide the city’s government and police department, City Manager Peggy Flynn said.

The group, formed as an ad hoc, had its first meeting in April and ultimately will make recommendations to the Petaluma City Council, she added.

Both Santa Rosa and Petaluma are also nearing the launch of programs that would divert calls away from police officers to trained crisis response workers, a model that originated in Eugene, Oregon, and has gained national and local attention in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Petaluma’s pilot program, which will operate in two-person teams, will consist of a mental health para-clinician and a second person who specializes in basic first aid.

Santa Rosa Police Capt. John Cregan, left and  Santa Rosa City Council member Tom Schwedhelm, the city's former police chief, walk the SMART tracks in this 2016 file photo. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2016
Santa Rosa Police Capt. John Cregan, left and Santa Rosa City Council member Tom Schwedhelm, the city's former police chief, walk the SMART tracks in this 2016 file photo. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2016

The teams could start to work in late June or the first week of July, Flynn said.

They will initially operate daily in 12-hour shifts, though the plan is to expand the service to a 24/7 program, Flynn said.

Santa Rosa has developed its own version of the response team after landing a contract with the Oregon nonprofit that created the original model. Its team’s start date is projected for October, Santa Rosa Police Capt. John Cregan said in an email.

The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety is in the early stages of planning for its own version of the program after the City Council unanimously supported the project in early April, Public Safety Director Tim Mattos said.

He and other police chiefs throughout the county, as well as Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, also banned the use of the carotid hold, a controversial technique used to subdue a person by restricting the blood flow to their brain by compressing the sides of their neck. Gov. Gavin Newsom spurred the decision in early June by suspending the teaching of the hold to officers statewide.

In Sonoma County, the move came after the high-profile death of David Ward in a 2019 Bloomfield traffic stop by sheriff’s deputies and Sebastopol police. The county announced last month it would pay a record $3.8 million to Ward’s family to settle their wrongful death suit. A former deputy involved in the arrest who put Ward in a neck hold and bashed his head against the door frame of Ward’s vehicle faces felony involuntary manslaughter and assault charges for his role in the death.

“(Floyd’s death has) definitively been a catalyst to say, ’Let’s stop talking about it and let’s get moving,’” Mattos said.

Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Director Tim Mattos holds an 'all-hands' meeting with his department personnel in this 2020 file photo.(photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Director Tim Mattos holds an 'all-hands' meeting with his department personnel in this 2020 file photo.(photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Countywide, the heightened attention to police reforms and accountability issues in the wake of Floyd’s murder also breathed new life last year into Measure P, the ballot initiative intended to bring more resources to the county’s independent law enforcement auditor overseeing the sheriff’s office, said Jerry Threet, the agency’s former director, who helped spearhead the effort.

Originally called the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, the measure had stalled in spring 2020 because the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to gather the signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot, Threet said.

But the influx of young activists using social media to organize the large protests throughout the county soon started reaching out to him, asking for more information about the ordinance, Threet said.

“They were looking for something concrete to do that would improve police relations in the county,” Threet said. “Over time, more and more of the activists became supportive of the (ordinance).”

In the face of immense public pressure, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in early August placed the measure on the ballot, which voters approved in November with about two-thirds of the vote.

Karlene Navarro, the current director of the county’s law enforcement oversight office, said in an email that the measure’s passage shows there’s overwhelming support for changes in how the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office patrols the county.

Jerry Threet, then-director of the county's Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, talks with some El Verano residents at a community meeting in this 2016 file photo. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)
Jerry Threet, then-director of the county's Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, talks with some El Verano residents at a community meeting in this 2016 file photo. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)

Her office has also seen an uptick in the number of groups who have reached out to find out more about her work.

“Every single day I pray that when the (pandemic restrictions) end and people go back to work and the routine of their daily lives, the momentum won’t die,” Navarro said.

Carmona-Benson, the Santa Rosa Junior College student leader, says school administrators have been responsive to some of the demands she and other members of the college’s Black Student Union made after Floyd’s death, though they have been slow to adopt others.

Among the demands the school has met is the creation of a scholarship fund for Black students, as well as the hiring of Black therapist, though those employees are only available for limited hours and the funding for their positions is temporary, Carmona-Benson said.

Another goal is to establish a Black Ethnic Studies Department at the school, an idea that got the backing of the college’s Academic Senate earlier this year, she added.

“I want people to understand that this isn’t a game,” Carmona-Benson said. “People are getting killed.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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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