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Report alleges officers violated human rights during Santa Rosa anti-racism protests

Officers with the Santa Rosa Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies violated the human rights of some protesters in late May and June by using excessive force and making unlawful detentions during largely peaceful rallies denouncing racism and police brutality, according to a new report from the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights.

The panel, composed typically of 15 community members appointed by Sonoma County supervisors, upheld allegations first reported last month accusing officers of injuring and mistreating some demonstrators who gathered in the city over a series of days and nights amid nationwide outcry following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The 40-page report, approved by the commission at its July 10 meeting, chronicles accounts of protesters and witnesses who told commissioners they experienced or watched local officers abuse their authority while trying to exert undue control over demonstrators, said D’mitra Smith, chair of the commission.

The reports include an account of the injuries sustained by a Santa Rosa man, Marqus Martinez, who is now suing Santa Rosa police after he was hit in the face May 31 by a sting ball grenade, a crowd-control projectile, fired by officers that broke his jaw bone and several teeth.

The lawsuit against the city provided the commission with details about the incident and was accompanied in the report by an account from Martinez’s sister, Liz Martinez, Smith said.

In another account, a woman, Nicole Jordan, told the commission she was forced to the ground by four officers despite being unarmed and peacefully protesting at the time of her June 2, arrest.

The commission determined several of the reported interactions between protesters and police ‒ it did not specify a number ‒ amounted to human rights abuses, Smith said.

The report also did not specify the number of alleged human rights violations thought to have occurred, though it did list six articles from the the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights that commissioners believe were breached, including the right to peaceful assembly and to be free from arbitrary arrest.

“We’re saying to the city of Santa Rosa that these things have been reported to us ... and we have seen no discipline of any of these officers,” said Smith, who co-founded of the non-profit Food For All - Comida Para Todos and who is Supervisor Susan Gorin’s appointee.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said the report was a flawed, one-sided account that did not reflect the chaos and violence his officers and other authorities confronted during late-night encounters with people who he said threw rocks and bottles at police and took over city streets with vehicle sideshows.

“It was a very dynamic situation and our officers were doing their best to identify people they saw as threats,” Navarro said.

The department launched investigations into citizen complaints lodged with the city in connection with the protests. City Hall is in the final steps of selecting a third-party investigator to complete a review of the department’s response to protesters, Navarro added.

“It’s a detailed report on one side of what happened, it doesn’t give you an overall picture,” he added of the commission report.

Smith said she announced the commission’s intentions to issue the report in a public Santa Rosa City Council meeting on June 30.

By then, the commission had received what Smith said were “an overwhelming” number of complaints from protesters about police activity during the protests and had worked with Supervisor Lynda Hopkins to set up a June 19 meeting between protesters, Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Navarro.

“We did tell you that we were going to come back and this wasn’t going to be an internal process,” Smith said in an interview, referring to the commission’s comments to Schwedhelm and Navarro about the pending report. “That’s why it’s surprising to me that the chief said that they didn’t get input.”

Many of the excerpts included in the report were direct quotes of accounts from protesters who spoke during the June 19 commission meeting. News stories and videos produced by journalists documenting incidents referenced in the report were included to supplement the protesters’ accounts, Smith added.

It also included complaints of mistreatment by deputies with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county jail, after 110 protesters were arrested by police on June 2. The protesters reported cramped conditions that flouted pandemic precautions and being denied outside phone calls.

The unprecedented number of people booked at the facility that night made social distancing impossible, then-Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Al Vernon said after the arrests.

The Sonoma Commission on Human Rights is a community board that was established in 1993 and serves to promote the well-being of all community members, regardless of their background. Its commissioners are selected from districts throughout the county act as liaisons to the Board of Supervisors on issues related to human rights. They hold public meetings and can forward resolutions to county supervisors. Their reports are not binding.

The new report includes a list of recommendations to Santa Rosa officials, among them an independent review of the Santa Rosa Police Department’s use-of-force policies and the abuses alleged in the commission in the report, as well as the firing of officers found responsible for the alleged violations.

“The aim of the report is to show the truth of the human rights violations that occurred during these protests and it’s asking the Santa Rosa City Council to place this report on its agenda and honor the demands of these residents that have been harmed,” Smith said.

Navarro pointed to police reform efforts already underway in Santa Rosa, such as the creation of the City Council’s public safety subcommittee and the launch of a plan intended to start dialogue with Black and Latino residents about the future of the city’s police department.

As for the third-party review of police handling of demonstrations, the city posted its request for proposals on June 18 and bids were due June 30.

The consultant selected for the project will need to examine police reports, dispatch records and body camera recordings from officers who responded to the protests, as well as interview key employees to collect firsthand accounts of the department’s response to the public demonstrations.

Schwedhelm, a retired Santa Rosa police chief, said he wanted more information about the events that transpired during the protests before bringing the commission’s report and recommendations before the city council.

“I would want to wait to have all the information before making that policy decision,” he said.

You can read the full report on the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights website. Navarro’s full written response is available on the city of Santa Rosa’s website.

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

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