Subscribe

Santa Rosa police fired unauthorized rounds at Black Lives Matter protesters, new report shows

5 takeaways from the 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 police officers fired four tactical projectiles designed to penetrate windows and walls at demonstrators during largely peaceful protests in the city in the wake of the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd last summer, according to a new report published by City Hall.

One of those so-called barricade rounds struck and severely injured a demonstrator, investigators hired by the city found, while officers targeted people in the crowd with rubber bullets and other munitions.

The deployment of projectiles and tear gas amounted to “a confrontational exercise of state authority” that further fueled the protests and stoked hostility toward police from those in the crowd, investigators concluded in the new 23-page report, commissioned last year by the city.

At least seven demonstrators seriously injured by police munitions have since filed legal claims against Santa Rosa. One of them is a man who was struck in the groin by a barricade round and grievously injured.

“If we’re going to rebuild trust with our community we need to have an honest conversation about what happened,” Mayor Chris Rogers said in an interview Thursday. “We have got to be better, period.”

The long-awaited report was carried out by the Los Angeles-based OIR Group, which specializes in law enforcement oversight. It was hired by the city to examine the Santa Rosa Police Department’s controversial handling of last summer’s street protests, including the extraordinary deployment of less-lethal munitions and tear gas in downtown during several nights in late May and early June when unrest convulsed the city.

Multiple departments, including the California Highway Patrol and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, dispatched personnel to assist Santa Rosa with crowd control and street closures. Police made dozens of nighttime arrests for curfew violations and unlawful assembly and vandals broke windows on some downtown buildings and tagged others with graffiti.

All told, police fired 120 rounds of various less-lethal munitions from 40 mm launchers and used 30 canisters of tear gas against the demonstrators, according to the OIR Group report.

For still unknown reasons, the outside investigators said, 50 of the rounds designed for use on physical barriers, not people, were deployed in the field during the protests. The lone person known to have been struck by one of the four barricade rounds that were fired was severely injured in his groin, the report disclosed. The remaining 46 rounds were not fired, after police realized they had been deployed in error.

Healdsburg resident Argelio Giron, who was not named in the report, was paid $200,000 in a settlement last year for the injury to his groin from a police projectile fired during a May 31 protest. Giron lost a testicle because of the severity of the wound.

“The harm caused by the deficient handling of these dangerous rounds was severe — and could easily have been worse,” the report concluded.

Michaela Staggs, 20, of Santa Rosa, California, bleeding from her head after getting hit with a chalk round while she was crossing the street at Mendocino Ave. & 7th Street about half a block from a line of police in riot gear just after midnight in downtown Santa Rosa on May 31, 2020. (Erik Castro/The Press Democrat)
Michaela Staggs, 20, of Santa Rosa, California, bleeding from her head after getting hit with a chalk round while she was crossing the street at Mendocino Ave. & 7th Street about half a block from a line of police in riot gear just after midnight in downtown Santa Rosa on May 31, 2020. (Erik Castro/The Press Democrat)

The OIR Group faulted some police tactics while condoning others. The firm’s report was aimed most closely at how the police department reviewed and investigated officers’ use of force during the protests. The consultants were meant to be embedded in that review, according to a copy of the contract between the city and firm.

The contract maxed out at $50,000. A final cost was not available Thursday.

The report is one of three focused on police response to the summer protests that will be discussed Tuesday by the Santa Rosa City Council. The others include a more critical assessment from the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights and a previous report by a different outside firm on police tactics.

“There are a lot of policy proposals that should be under consideration and the City Council does have the authority to set policy for the police department,” said Jerry Threet, the human rights commission chair. “I would hope they start having a public process so they can consider what should be their policy around protest policing.”

The review found “operational shortcomings that were systemic in nature” in the Santa Rosa Police Department, including an agency ill-equipped for daily reviews of officers’ use-of-force incidents. Reports were not made quickly or piled up as the protests wore on, in many cases landing on the desk of a single sergeant, the report showed. That sergeant, in turn, was also faulted for a field action involving use of force during the protests, the report showed.

5 takeaways from the 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.

The report described at least four instances in which officers received formal discipline for their actions during the protests. Two were officers who fired the barricade rounds; one of the officers hit a protester, the report found.

One was a sergeant who was warned about the unauthorized rounds by another officer but did not do enough to make sure the rounds were not used, the report said.

The fourth employee was disciplined after striking a person with a baton as they were being arrested — force that the department deemed appropriate, according to the report. But the officer failed to turn on his body-worn camera in a timely manner and made a “contemptuous” comment at the person in custody.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro did not make himself available for comment Thursday about the report’s findings. Sgt. Chris Mahurin, a department spokesman, said the chief was in back-to-back meetings all afternoon into the evening.

A request for the total number of officers disciplined in connection with the protest, as well as the reasons for the discipline, was not answered Thursday afternoon.

Santa Rosa has been without an independent police auditor for more than two years.

Much of the report focused on officers’ use of tear gas and other projectiles. Protesters were struck with chalk bags and rubber bullets. More than a half dozen suffered serious injuries as a result.

Marqus Martinez suffered a split upper lip, shattered front teeth, and broken facial bones when he was struck in the face by what he believes to be a sting ball grenade, launched by law enforcement, while protesting against police brutality near Mendocino and College avenues. last Sunday night.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Marqus Martinez suffered a split upper lip, shattered front teeth, and broken facial bones when he was struck in the face by what he believes to be a sting ball grenade, launched by law enforcement, while protesting against police brutality near Mendocino and College avenues. last Sunday night.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Along with Giron, those injured included Marqus Martinez, a 33-year-old father of five who underwent two rounds of surgery after his face was shattered by a projectile round fired by an officer after a peaceful protest was ordered to disperse. Martinez was one of three protesters who said they were struck in the head by the rubberized rounds, resulting in severe facial injuries.

“It was like a little bomb went off in my mouth,” Martinez, of Santa Rosa, recalled last summer. Fragments of broken teeth were embedded in his lips, tongue and the roof of his mouth.

Santa Rosa officers targeted individual members of the crowd for “impact rounds” from the 40 mm launcher, the report states, noting that similar tactics were used by law enforcement in street protests across the nation. The targeting led to serious injuries and raised questions about the “target acquisition” during crowded protests, the report said.

Sonoma County Sheriff's Office SWAT team members secure Forever 21 at the Santa Rosa Plaza after the windows were broken by people protesting the death George Floyd in Santa Rosa, California, on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Sheriff's Office SWAT team members secure Forever 21 at the Santa Rosa Plaza after the windows were broken by people protesting the death George Floyd in Santa Rosa, California, on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

The authors recommended “rethinking the entire dynamic” behind the city’s police response. They hedged their conclusions, however, by saying that the “overwhelming majority” of force used by police in Santa Rosa was in response to unlawful acts.

The most common act, according to investigators, was throwing things at law enforcement or efforts by protesters “to thwart the gas munitions” — covering tear gas canisters to protect themselves, or in some cases, hurling or kicking the canisters back toward the police line.

A prior report by the consulting firm Hillard Heintze concluded that there were 27 injuries to police officers during the protest. It did not elaborate on the extent of those injuries. Most were from officers being struck with rocks, bricks, bottles and fireworks.

Reviews across the nation of law enforcement response to police reform and racial justice demonstrations last year have reached similarly mixed conclusions.

That determination that most tactics deployed last summer were not in violation of policy does not excuse the city in the face of widespread public concern, said Rogers, the Santa Rosa mayor.

“When an officer is following the policy, the accountability falls on city leadership,” he said. Rogers anticipated a community conversation around the use of tear gas and around police arriving at a protest in body armor designed for combating riots.

Community members do not want to see tear gas used against protesters, said Threet, who previously served as Sonoma County’s independent law enforcement watchdog. “Tear gas should be reserved as a last resort type of strategy where you have widespread violence and destruction of property that’s gotten to the point where its just mayhem and you have to stop it.”

“If the city … listens to the community then the city is going to end up banning tear gas,” in most cases, he said.

The report detailed that a case of 50 barricade rounds not authorized for crowd control were brought into the field due to “circumstances that remain unknown in spite of significant investigative efforts.” The rounds are designed to penetrate surfaces such as windows to allow gas to be used against a barricaded subject, according to the report.

The Santa Rosa Police Department has since “tightened” its policies governing use of the 40mm launchers, according to the report.

Other jurisdictions have taken similar steps, the authors said. “Cities, states and judges faced with similar concerns have moved to prohibit or severely limit the use of less lethal munitions in the protest context,” the report stated.

The report recommended Santa Rosa “should convene a broader discussion about whether and how less-lethal munitions should be deployed in the First Amendment assembly context.”

Santa Rosa officials told the outside investigators they did not consider retreat an option during the protests, out of concerns that demonstrators would engage in vandalism.

Police were more successful in Santa Rosa once they shifted to a strategy in which they made arrests after a city-imposed curfews had been in effect for “a few hours,” the report concluded.

Police officers conduct a mass booking of protesters in the Santa Rosa Junior College parking garage at the corner of Mendocino and Pacific avenues in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Police officers conduct a mass booking of protesters in the Santa Rosa Junior College parking garage at the corner of Mendocino and Pacific avenues in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

The outside investigation generally lauds Santa Rosa’s internal police reviews, which it says were understandably limited as the protests continued unfolding. “SRPD’s force policy that requires timely notification to supervisors occurred belatedly if at all,” the report notes, but it excuses that shortcoming based on the days of sustained long shifts for officers assigned to the protests.

Some findings raise significant questions about the department’s ability to police itself.

For example, the majority of the initial review of force by the police department fell to a police sergeant who was “highly involved” during the peak confrontations between police and protesters over two days. The sergeant had used force on multiple instances himself, was investigated and found to have violated policy on one of those instances.

“This dynamic is highly irregular and, for obvious reasons, problematic,” the report concluded.

The report’s authors said there were explanations for why the sergeant was the one assigned the review, including his training and expertise and the heavy lift of reviewing all the department’s eligible incidents during the protests.

But in a footnote the report again flagged the sergeant’s involvement as striking. “It would be both rare for a sergeant to use force at all and relatively easy to assign its evaluation to another supervisor,” the footnote concluded. Any future review of force, the authors recommended, ought to maintain “appropriate objectivity by avoiding the involvement of actual participants.”

On the whole, the investigators agreed with SRPD that the uses of force they evaluated were in compliance with department policy. In many cases evidence was limited, and the report notes that “robust discussion with department leadership” influenced investigators’ conclusions on other instances.

“On the very few occasions when we might have reached other conclusions if acting on our own, we had robust discussion with department leadership and ended up sufficiently satisfied that its ultimate course of action was reasonable,” the report said.

Two of the internal affairs investigations that resulted from the summer protests will be released to the public under a law that requires them to be, though those reviews are not yet finalized, said Mahurin, the Santa Rosa Police spokesman.

The law, SB 1421, requires agencies to publish investigations involving officers who discharge their firearms at a person while on the job or use force that results in death or great bodily injury, among other situations.

You can reach Staff Writers Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com and Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

Read the report below:

Protest Report.pdf

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette