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Santa Rosa pays $200,000 to protester police shot in groin with rubber bullet

A Healdsburg man shot in the groin with a rubber bullet by police last May during protests against systemic racism and police brutality has received a $200,000 settlement from the city of Santa Rosa to compensate him for his injuries and medical expenses.

The settlement, finalized in late October and disclosed Tuesday evening during a Santa Rosa City Council meeting, resolves one of three legal proceedings filed against the city by seven demonstrators who allege they were injured by police during a series of protests that erupted in Sonoma County over the spring and summer.

Argelio Giron underwent emergency surgery to remove a ruptured testicle after he was struck by a rubber bullet during a May 31 protest, according to a claim filed with the city in June.

Mark Merin, a Sacramento civil rights attorney who represents Giron, said Wednesday the Healdsburg man was “OK” and had recovered from “a rather traumatic injury.” He said the city did not dispute any specific allegations Giron made and noted that the so-called “rubber” bullets were actually pieces of hard plastic weighing a couple of ounces.

“I think it’s absolutely outrageous,” Merin said. “They can’t randomly fire serious projectiles into a crowd for any reason whatsoever. It’s never going to be permissible.”

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said Wednesday the Police Department was awaiting the conclusion of a review of police actions during the protests. “I cannot make any further comments in regards to the incidents at this time,” he said.

The city released public records on the settlement Wednesday in response to a request by The Press Democrat.

According to Giron’s complaint, he was filming a demonstration with his cellphone near the Unitarian Universalist Congregation around midnight on May 31, when crowds filled Santa Rosa’s streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality.

Giron was dressed in a “brown beret service uniform,” according to the complaint. The Brown Berets are a pro-Chicano organization that rose to prominence in the 1960s.

Giron saw someone break the glass windows of the church, stopped filming and confronted the vandal, who fled. A line of about 40 police officers advanced on a crowd of about 30 demonstrators after the act of destruction, the complaint said.

As some in the crowd threw small items such as water bottles over the heads of officers, police began to “indiscriminately” fire their less-lethal weapons, such as guns that shoot rubber bullets, into the crowd, Giron’s complaint alleged. Rubber bullets do not match traditional firearms in terms of inflicting bodily harm, but they can still cause serious injuries and can be deadly.

Sue Gallagher, the city attorney, told the City Council and the public Tuesday that police moved to disperse the crowd when “the peaceful protest turned violent and destructive.”

“The police endeavored to disperse the crowd using verbal commands, tear gas, foam-tipped bullets and other techniques,” Gallagher said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “Unfortunately, Mr. Giron was struck by a police projectile, and he suffered serious injury.”

Giron was looking down at his cellphone when he "felt a sharp pain in his groin,“ the complaint said. The Healdsburg man had been shot with a rubber bullet, which he picked up before taking cover behind a nearby vehicle. When he looked down at his body, he discovered he was bleeding from his groin area, the complaint said.

Giron drove himself to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for treatment and was diagnosed with a ruptured left testicle and two cuts to his genitals, the complaint said. He underwent emergency surgery to have the testicle removed and his wounds stitched shut. He spent more than a day in the hospital and was released June 2.

Giron could not identify which officer shot him as their uniforms were “indistinguishable,” the complaint said, further alleging that officers’ uniforms were intentionally designed to hide their identities and avoid accountability.

The complaint named Navarro as well as the city and the Santa Rosa Police Department as responsible parties, alleging that Navarro was “directly responsible for condoning known constitutionally-deficient conduct carried out by his subordinates, and for establishing policies, customs, or practices of action or inaction that caused or contributed to (Giron’s) injuries.”

Under the settlement, the city, the Police Department and their employees denied “any liability or responsibility for any alleged injuries, losses, or damages” sustained by Giron, who agreed to drop his claim against the city and not to file any others in the future.

The protests were part of a nationwide call for justice and action after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, whose May 25 death has come to symbolize the excessive and sometimes deadly levels of police force faced by unarmed people of color in scenarios that usually carry less lethal consequences for white people.

At least six other demonstrators have filed legal claims for injuries they sustained, including three who said they were shot in the head when police in Santa Rosa fired projectiles to disperse crowds.

Two of the three people who sustained head injuries have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco. Three other people are plaintiffs in that case: two people who say they were injured by tear gas during the police response to Santa Rosa protests and one person who claimed an injury sustained from a police baton.

Their attempt to secure a preliminary ruling against the city was denied in late August, but the judge in the case kept the lawsuit alive Nov. 5 by only partially granting the city’s motion to dismiss, according to court records. The case was referred to a second judge Tuesday to oversee a settlement conference, which is set to be conducted within three months.

A third person shot in the head with a nonlethal projectile also has filed a claim against the city but does not appear to have filed a lawsuit, Gallagher said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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