Santa Rosa picks Los Angeles firm for police auditor role after 3-year vacancy

If the contract is approved at the next city council meeting, OIR Group will fill a nearly 3-year vacancy in Santa Rosa’s law enforcement oversight role.|

A Los Angeles firm that specializes in law enforcement oversight and helped review the Santa Rosa Police Department’s use of force in Black Lives Matter protests last year is the lead candidate to fill the city’s police auditor role, which has been vacant since late 2018.

The city manager’s office will be bringing the proposed contract with OIR Group to the council for approval at its meeting Tuesday.

The city previously hired the group to review the police department’s internal investigations into officers’ actions last summer. Officers injured multiple demonstrators when they fired rounds of tear gas and other less-lethal munitions into crowds, including ones found to be unauthorized for use on people.

The long-delayed selection of a candidate for the role marks a step toward one of the city’s basic pledges made in the wake of 2020’s unrest, in which daily demonstrations demanded greater scrutiny of police violence and racial injustice both locally and nationwide.

For some of the most active members of the community who have propelled demands for oversight, the news of a pending hire is welcome — but overdue.

“It’s totally negligent to have a vacancy this long, especially because misconduct has occurred to a severe degree during the lapse,” said Evan Phillips, a local activist on policing issues in Sonoma County.

City officials said that the recruitment was complicated by the nationwide reckoning in policing and competition for a relatively new and limited field of experts.

“It’s a really technical, difficult position,” said Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, who chairs the council’s public safety subcommittee. “And in the wake of the civil unrest last year, a lot of jurisdictions decided they want to hire police auditors — they’re in high demand.”

The first and last time the Santa Rosa Police Department had a dedicated watchdog was during the tenure of Bob Aaronson, a Palo Alto attorney hired part-time in 2016. His role, as well as Sonoma County’s independent agency tasked with overseeing the Sheriff’s Office, was formed after a sheriff’s deputy in 2013 fatally shot Santa Rosa teenager Andy Lopez.

Aaronson’s contract with the city was not renewed following his public critique of the city’s efforts to address homelessness.

The role will look different this time around.

Interim City Manager Jeff Kolin, Community Engagement Division Director Magali Telles and Police Capt. John Cregan explained in an interview with The Press Democrat on Wednesday that the auditor post would be empowered with new abilities and priorities.

For one, Kolin said, OIR Group is a team of people with extensive law enforcement oversight experience, rather than a single lawyer.

“And they also have a very conscious community engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion component on their team,” Kolin said.

OIR Group would report directly to the city manager and review police department internal investigations, audit policies, practices and records, conduct community outreach, and prepare an annual report presented to the Santa Rosa City Council.

The watchdog’s involvement would be “more front-loaded” than it was during the Aaronson era, said Cregan, with the individual auditors allowed immediately on the scene of critical incidents such as police shootings, and in interviews with officers under scrutiny. They also should have unfettered access to the department’s body-worn camera footage and complaint database.

The group must set up a phone line, email and website to directly receive complaints from the public. Other outreach efforts would be guided by Brian Corr, an equity consultant and president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The contract would last three years, with the city paying OIR Group $90,000 per year from the police budget for as-needed services.

Michael Gennaco, who leads OIR Group, declined to comment on the contract due to the upcoming City Council vote.

Gennaco was the chief attorney of the Office of Independent Review for Los Angeles County before starting OIR Group, according to the group’s website.

“Widespread protests and spiraling jury verdicts reflect the public’s increasing concern about law enforcement performance — and its high expectations for responsive policing,” the website reads.

The team has conducted oversight investigations in cities across the country, including an examination of the 2011 death of Kelly Thomas after he was beaten by members of the Fullerton Police Department and several other “high profile internal affairs investigations” into the Oakland Police Department, according to a city staff report.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said he is looking forward to an auditor joining the department, and pointed to the professional standards unit created under Aaronson to investigate allegations against officers of serious misconduct as evidence of the symbiotic relationship he believes they can have.

“I don’t see this as a divisive relationship. This is something I’ve wanted ever since I became chief,” Navarro added.

The nearly three years since the position became vacant were rocked by frequent and explosive controversies over local law enforcement, heightening the need for transparency and accountability.

In Santa Rosa, the flashpoint was the police department’s aggressive handling of nighttime street demonstrations sparked by the May 25, 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Santa Rosa police officers fired rubber bullets, tear gas and barricade rounds meant to pierce walls and windows at protesters.

Three civil rights lawsuits brought by protesters who suffered injuries led to payouts from the city totaling $2.3 million.

To Phillips, a regular at the protests, the oversight role in its proposed form is insufficient. He and other activists have pushed for a legally empowered civilian review board to work in tandem with the auditor. This way, the public is represented and has direct input in public safety decision-making. The police department’s own research has found that a joint oversight system is “a very effective model for most communities,” Captain Eric Litchfield said in a February presentation to the public safety subcommittee.

There are no plans for a citizen oversight body, Kolin said on Wednesday. Community input on the auditor’s proposed responsibilities and authorities was gathered through the city’s Community Empowerment Plan listening sessions after last summer, Telles said, and would be welcomed during public comment at the City Council meeting next Tuesday.

“If they hadn’t had the dust-up after George Floyd was killed ... I think we’d still be waiting around for something to happen,” said Susan Collier Lamont, a longtime Santa Rosa activist.

City officials chalked up the delay in filling the position to the small pool of qualified candidates and surging demand for oversight services. The city issued a total of four job postings between the beginning of 2019 and now, Kolin said. The first netted no response. The second received two applications and the third only one. The last, sent out in June of this year, solicited another two proposals, OIR Group among them.

Cities across the country like San Diego, Seattle and Chicago are searching for their own watchdogs, according to job postings compiled by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Even so, diverting misconduct complaints to a group based hundreds of miles away rather than here in the community raised some concerns for accountability advocates over already-strained public confidence.

“It doesn’t allow for someone to really come up with an informed conversation. Their engagement is still surface-level,” said Kirstyne Lange, a local leader on civilian law enforcement review. “Hopefully, this group has done their homework and due diligence.”

OIR Group found in its May 2021 report that Santa Rosa police officers shot unauthorized rounds at protesters, targeted individuals with munitions and escalated tensions with the crowd, but that the “overwhelming majority” of force used was in response to unlawful acts.

Some in the community said the report was incomplete or did not reflect the truth on the ground.

“Our experience at that time with the firm was that they were very thorough, professional,” Kolin said. “I think through that whole process, they demonstrated the kind of expertise, experience and knowledge about a complex issue and subject matter in addressing a very difficult period of time for the city.”

Even critics of Santa Rosa City Hall expressed tentative hope OIR Group can fill the oversight gap in the city.

“They have a respectable track record when they have operated with true independence,” Phillips said. “I’m hopeful they’ll do a good job if operating independently under this new contract.”

“I think right now we’re witnessing a critical, long-overdue change,” Lange said. “But I remain hopeful that all those who express interest in building this system up will follow through.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @vv1lder.

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