Santa Rosa leaders hosting public forums to review police actions during 2020 protests
Santa Rosa City Council will roll back the clock Tuesday and Wednesday and dissect reports assessing the city police department’s handling of last summer’s protests for police reform, including one review that found police fired unauthorized rounds at demonstrators.
A pair of virtual public meetings will kick off at 1 p.m. Tuesday and include presentations from two city-contracted consulting firms. One was hired to review and guide the police department’s internal probe of officers’ use of force during the protests, while the other was tasked with analyzing how the agency and other city departments responded to demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.
Sonoma County Human Rights Commission members, which accused the Santa Rosa Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies of using excessive force and unlawfully detaining people during what they said were largely peaceful rallies, will also speak before the council.
Santa Rosa’s Office of Community Engagement, which has garnered community input about the police department’s use-of-force tactics and other policies, will begin the second day of discussions at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro and other high-ranking officers will be the last group to speak to the council. Their report will go through the policy and procedural recommendations made by the two outside consulting firms and the department’s response to those suggestions.
“We’re trying to be open and honest with the city about what happened,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said Friday, calling the public discussions a pivotal step in the city’s broader conversation about police reform. “Hopefully we move forward on policy reforms to correct what we need to correct.”
The two special meetings come less than a year after hundreds of people swarmed the city’s core to denounce police shootings of people of color, one of a series of nationwide protests largely incited by Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020.
The discussions were preceded by the City of Santa Rosa’s announcement Friday of a historic $1.9 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by five people injured by Santa Rosa officers during the demonstrations, including a man left with shattered front teeth and fractured facial bones after he was hit by a police sting ball grenade.
On Wednesday, the city published a 23-page report by the law enforcement oversight consulting firm OIR Group, which found police fired 120 rounds of various less-lethal munitions and discharged 30 canisters of tear gas on protesters during the first days of the demonstrations.
Four barricade rounds, which are typically used to break through windows and are not authorized to be used during protests, were also launched during the protests. One of those rounds struck a man in the groin, causing severe injuries, the report said.
In his first interview since the posting of the OIR Group report, Navarro on Friday called the deployment of barricade rounds to the protests a “critical error” on the part of his department. The consulting firm was unable to track the origin of those rounds.
The frequency and intensity of the protests that roiled the city on back-to-back days and nights last summer were unlike those Navarro’s department deals with, with officers clocking long hours reporting being struck with industrial grade fireworks, bottles of urine and other items.
“It was overwhelming,” Navarro said. “This was a traumatic event for our community, and we’re part of that.”
While the OIR report found that a majority of the use-of-force tactics deployed by officers during the demonstrations fell within the Santa Rosa police department’s policy, it also highlighted structural flaws within the agency that he and his staff have tried to correct, Navarro said.
The changes include updates to the department’s policies around the deployment of 40 mm launchers, which were used to fire a variety of less-lethal munitions, such as impact rounds, during the protests.
The new policy lays out in greater detail the circumstances for which officers can use the equipment, such as when a person is armed with a weapon, throwing rocks, bottles or other objects at people, including officers, or when there’s probable cause to believe someone has committed a crime and they refuse to comply with police commands.
Tear gas guidelines also were added to the department’s policies for the first time. They allow the chemical to be used during crowd control and dispersal situations but only an officer with the rank of lieutenant or higher can OK its use, the policy said.