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Rohnert Park officials tight-lipped over police asset seizures led by embattled former sergeant

Rohnert Park city leaders said they had little to no knowledge of their public safety department’s aggressive efforts to intercept black-market drugs and cash by sending police officers far outside the city.

None of the five elected City Council members would say last week whether they believed those operations were an effective use of city resources, but one called for a closed-door meeting to discuss an investigation into a controversial former sergeant in the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety who led the seizures.

The operations focused in large part on the heavy flow of marijuana and cash down Highway 101 between the North Coast’s famed Emerald Triangle cannabis growing region and the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

Targeting motorists on that route, Rohnert Park officers seized $2.4 million in cash and valuable assets in the past three years - more than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County claimed under civil forfeiture laws. Many of the seizures were near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line - more than 40 miles north of Rohnert Park - and their peak came during a period when the city was struggling to fully staff its public safety department of cross-trained police officers and firefighters.

The city’s top enforcer in those missions, former Sgt. Brendon “Jacy” Tatum, left the force in June amid a city investigation into the complaints of a driver who said he was the victim of a drug robbery by unidentified officers on Highway 101. Tatum’s departure also coincided with mounting complaints about his on-duty conduct.

Mayor Pam Stafford said she remains “extremely proud” of Rohnert Park’s public safety department and said she doesn’t have the facts that would allow her to comment on the city’s policy for highway traffic stops seeking illegal drugs and cash. The council oversees city department budgets but has no say in how they are run, Stafford said.

“Yes, we are in charge of the budget, but we aren’t in charge of how public works people are dispatched or how recreation people do their jobs,” Stafford said.

Councilman Jake Mackenzie said it is the job of the city manager, Darrin Jenkins, and the public safety department’s director, Brian Masterson, to oversee the agency’s operations. Masterson has repeatedly declined to answer questions about the Highway 101 stops or about Tatum, a decorated 15-year veteran he promoted to sergeant in 2015.

Mackenzie said he could not recall any discussion by the council about the city’s asset seizure policies, or the employee time involved in such missions. He could not remember any discussion about the amount of money the seizures contributed to the city budget. In the fiscal year that ended June, the public safety department’s $20 million budget included about $200,000 of asset forfeiture funds allocated to spend on public safety vehicles.

“I do not remember at any time any of us engaging in a debate, on the City Council level, on the deployment of our resources on this particular issue,” Mackenzie said.

Masterson said he would speak with a reporter last week then failed to return repeated phone calls and an email requesting an interview.

Jenkins, the city manager, on Friday afternoon declined to answer most questions about the public safety department’s seizures or the policy behind them, saying he was prevented from doing so because it relates to “an open investigation,” and he needed to “preserve the rights of the involved parties.”

The asset seizures and Tatum’s lead role in them were detailed in a pair of stories published over two days last week in The Press Democrat. Those stories and other recent media reports spotlighted a number of troubling run-ins with Tatum described by defendants and lawyers who’ve criticized his police work, pointing to what they said were questionable traffic stops, searches and seizures.

Tatum, who was honored in 2015 by the City Council for his work seizing suspected illegal drugs and cash on Highway 101, was placed on leave in April, at the outset of the city’s internal investigation involving him and another officer.

But Mackenzie said he could not recall any discussion about the topic of the city’s highway seizure operations.

“I do not believe there was, from my recollection, a conscious decision on the part of the City Council to say, ‘Yea, department of public safety, carry out this program to the max,’ Mackenzie said.

Yet those operations were ratcheted up amid recent struggles to fully staff the department of 71-sworn officers and firefighters. They increased even as other local law enforcement agencies curbed or stopped their efforts, reflecting changes in state marijuana laws and a shift by local prosecutors away from taking lower-level marijuana cases to trial.

Mackenzie declined to say whether he believed it was an effective use of city resources. He said he believed Rohnert Park often collaborated with other law enforcement agencies on what had been a common policing tactic. However, most law enforcement agencies ended their operations several years ago amid staff shortages. Santa Rosa’s last mission was in 2014.

Rohnert Park officials said its officers were instructed to stop conducting missions after a January 2017 meeting with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office. But records show Tatum was making traffic stops as late as December on Highway 101 near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, more than 40 miles north of the city. In an interview, Tatum said he was conducting surveillance and happened to come across a motorist with what appeared to be an unlawful amount of cannabis in the vehicle.

Questions raised about Rohnert Park’s police force and Tatum, Mackenzie said, have not affected public confidence in the city’s public safety department, in his opinion.

“One of the things that does not seem to concern our citizens is the public safety department,” Mackenzie said. “I know that they’re exercised by traffic problems in the city, but they don’t seem to be exercised by the way in which we provide police and fire protection.”

But veteran Councilwoman Gina Belforte thinks the City Council now must wrestle with those questions, albeit behind closed doors. During the final minutes of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, she asked that the clerk schedule a time for a closed-session discussion about the administrative investigation into Tatum as well as the city’s interdiction efforts.

“I understand it’s a personnel issue, but it’s a policy issue at hand as well,” Belforte said during the council meeting. “We are elected officials and we answer to the community. And I’m requesting we have a closed session in the very near future to discuss this.”

That discussion, off-limits to the public, is tentatively scheduled for July 24.

In a statement sent to The Press Democrat before the meeting, Belforte said she believes most public safety personnel act “ethically and compassionately,” and added “there is no circumstance that entitles officers to break the law, use their authority to intimidate or coerce, or to play judge and jury.

“I’m absolutely committed to supporting the full investigation and making sure that any culture that may have accepted this behavior, is identified and rooted out,” Belforte said in the statement.

City Councilman Amy Ahanotu declined to discuss anything related to the city’s asset forfeiture policies. Councilman Joseph Callinan agreed to talk but failed to return phone calls seeking comment.

In 2015, the council recognized Tatum as “officer of the year” for his work on drug interdiction cases in a ceremony led by Ahanotu, who was mayor at the time.

Tatum thanked the city “for giving me the opportunity to work the highway to fight the war on drugs,” according to a recording of the council meeting.

Rohnert Park resident Jim Duffy, who played a key role in helping Sonoma County establish its first civilian-law enforcement oversight program - for the Sheriff’s Office - said he has spoken at dozens of City Council meetings urging Rohnert Park to do the same.

He said he wasn’t sure what to make of revelations about the city’s asset seizures at this point. “Without oversight and a way to look into it, I don’t know,” he said.

Tatum said he resigned in June because he wanted a career change. He was taken off duty in April when the city began investigating him and another still-employed officer, Joseph Huffaker. The probe was launched in response to a man’s complaints about a December traffic stop and drug seizure in Mendocino County.

The driver in that case, a former Texas school district police officer named Zeke Flatten, said he believes the unidentified officers who pulled him over wrongly seized his marijuana, a total of about three pounds. The officers wore generic “police” vests but no uniforms or visible badges, and when asked what agency they represented, one claimed to be with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to Flatten. A spokeswoman with the ATF said her agency’s officers were not involved.

Flatten has contacted and submitted complaints to multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, but no law enforcement agency has come forward to say its officers detained him.

Two months after the stop, Flatten’s name appeared on a Rohnert Park police report written by Tatum. In an interview, Tatum said he had mistakenly included Flatten’s name on his report and he said he doesn’t remember ever pulling him over. He said he had mistakenly included Flatten’s name on his report, based on information from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, because he had not recorded the name of a man he pulled over in December.

The case has publicly spotlighted Tatum’s reputation as a controversial law enforcement figure who made his name with aggressive patrolling of Highway 101 along the Sonoma-Mendocino county line. Multiple people who had property taken from them during encounters with Tatum have since come forward to claim the sergeant violated their rights. One man is suing Rohnert Park, accusing Tatum of being responsible for $10,000 that he said remains missing after Tatum and another officer seized in a traffic stop $132,000 in cash that had been stored in sealed containers in his girlfriend’s car. Only $121,920 ended up in evidence at the police department, court documents show. Tatum denied the allegation.

Council members Stafford, Ahanotu, Belforte and Mackenzie declined to discuss the investigation into Tatum, saying they were barred from speaking publicly about police personnel matters by state law.

Stafford said she thinks the city’s dual police and firefighters “do an outstanding job” and the city’s leadership will address any problems directly.

“The city is doing an investigation, and we did that right away when we heard about anything that looked funny,” Stafford said. “We’re investigating it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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