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Santa Rosa leaders hosting public forums to review police actions during 2020 protests

5 takeaways from one outside review into last year’s protests

— The less-lethal force tactics Santa Rosa police used on protesters were mostly in response to illegal actions, the report found.

— Unauthorized “barricade rounds” were launched by officers responding to the demonstrations, resulting in serious injuries to one man who was struck in the groin.

— The report identified systemic issues with the police department’s deployment of tear gas and less-lethal “impact rounds.”

— Officers used less force against protesters when they prioritized making arrests rather than using less-lethal munitions.

— Use-of-force violations led to formal discipline for several SRPD officers. They include two officers who fired the barricade rounds and a sergeant who was alerted of the unauthorized rounds but did not do enough to make sure they were removed from the field, the report said.

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.

5 takeaways from one outside review into last year’s protests

— The less-lethal force tactics Santa Rosa police used on protesters were mostly in response to illegal actions, the report found.

— Unauthorized “barricade rounds” were launched by officers responding to the demonstrations, resulting in serious injuries to one man who was struck in the groin.

— The report identified systemic issues with the police department’s deployment of tear gas and less-lethal “impact rounds.”

— Officers used less force against protesters when they prioritized making arrests rather than using less-lethal munitions.

— Use-of-force violations led to formal discipline for several SRPD officers. They include two officers who fired the barricade rounds and a sergeant who was alerted of the unauthorized rounds but did not do enough to make sure they were removed from the field, the report said.

Joy Ayodele, 19, one of several activists who helped coordinate rallies in Santa Rosa in the wake of Floyd’s death, recalled being shocked by the amount of force being used by officers during last summer’s protests, even when the majority of attendees were youth.

Yet officers did not show the same level of aggression when protesters reported violence from other individuals, including the teen driver of a truck that drove through a crowd assembled near Old Courthouse Square during a Saturday night protest and one instance when a person got out of a vehicle and pointed a gun at a group of demonstrators, Ayodele said.

After the Old Courthouse Square incident, a 17-year-old Montgomery High School student was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon days later after he was identified by police. He told officers he wanted to fly an American flag past the crowd, police said.

The driver in the other incident said he thought some teens were pulling items from the back of the truck during a protest and was hit in the head with a skateboard when he tried to stop them, police said. He grabbed the barrel of a shotgun, which was not functioning, in an attempt to defend himself. Protesters denied hitting the man, who told officers he did not want to press charges, police said.

“Having them show up and show out in really excessive ways and be controlling the crowds at night ... and at the same time, to see (how police acted) when there actually were violent acts taking place, that was really showing,” Ayodele said.

Evan Phillips, 37, was also a regular attendee at last year’s protests. He said officer’s armed presence during the demonstrations created a “hostile feel” as the sun went down, when crowds had thinned from the peaceful daytime gatherings hours prior.

“How did we get to a place where SRPD was firing tear gas and less lethal ... munitions at its people?” Phillips said. “It’s a grossly disproportionate response to what was happening.”

In all, five of eight officers who were investigated by the department in connection with the protests were formally disciplined after the department found sustained policy violations, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.

They included a sergeant who was tasked with overseeing the department’s review of use-of-force incidents during the protests, but was later found to have violated policy during a force deployment during the demonstration, he said.

The three other officers investigated were exonerated, Mahurin said. Two of those investigations will be released to the public under a police transparency law that makes public investigations of police shootings and certain uses of force, among other situations.

Navarro plans to use the OIR Group report to engage community members with additional conversations around protests and when officers should use force, he said.

He plans to pose those questions to the new Chief’s Community Ambassador Team, a group he’s convened to garner additional insight from residents about how to run the department.

“When do we restore order?” Navarro said. “Those are the conversations we’re going to have with the community.”

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

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