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Santa Rosa residents call for long-vacant police watchdog job to be filled

Santa Rosa officials and city residents voiced support for reinstating an independent police auditor, a watchdog the city has lacked for more than two years.

City Council members, city Police Chief Ray Navarro and a chorus of citizens Monday supported bringing back a police auditor, an oversight role created in response to community outcry after the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013 by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy.

All three members of council’s public safety subcommittee — Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, Vice Mayor Natalie Rogers and Councilman Tom Schwedhelm — expressed desire for the city to hire a police auditor with haste.

Fleming, who chairs the subcommittee, said she would prefer giving the auditor position a fixed term rather than a month-to-month arrangement. She also suggested making it a full-time position, as opposed to Palo Alto attorney Bob Aaronson’s previous part-time role, for which the city paid him $11,000 a month, and formalizing the position in the city’s charter.

“Make it more of an institution that has to be filled,” she said, “rather than one that can be filled — or not filled, as the case has been lately.”

The city has left open the police watchdog role after Aaronson irked City Council in 2018 by criticizing Santa Rosa’s efforts to address the homelessness crisis, which involves enforcement work that drains officer morale. After that criticism, his contract was not renewed.

Council members took exception to Aaronson’s remarks, such as what he called his “core observation“ that ”what we have done thus far to address the challenge of homelessness has not made an appreciable dent in the problem.“

The post was filled in some capacity from 2014 to 2018, when the police auditor was empowered to vet Santa Rosa police internal investigations and citizen complaints with access to a broad spread of police records, Navarro said. That initial period of work led to the creation of the department’s professional standards unit, now led by Capt. Eric Litchfield, who commended the city’s model of an investigative police auditor, despite the vacancy.

“In my opinion, with the research I’ve done, those are very effective models for most communities,” Litchfield said at Monday’s meeting of council’s public safety subcommittee. He noted as an example Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

With no replacement for Aaronson, Santa Rosa lacked that key layer of oversight last summer when local protests flared after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in late May. At least seven people have filed claims against the city for injuries allegedly inflicted by officers during the demonstrations here in late May and early June.

The city has had to hire an outside consultant to study police use of force during the protests. Navarro previously has acknowledged that if the city had a police auditor last summer, they wouldn’t have needed to look elsewhere for a use of force review.

Numerous community residents were baffled the city allowed the police auditor position to be vacant for so long.

“It is time for this city to commit to this and to give it more than lip service,“ said Susan Lamont, a longtime local advocate for police reform. ”The resources and principles are out there. The only thing we need now is the political will.”

The city’s willingness to allow the post to sit vacant has been “confusing and hard to understand,” said attorney Jerry Threet, the former Sonoma County law enforcement watchdog and current chair of the county’s Commission on Human Rights.

Upon Aaronson’s departure, the city initially set a goal of hiring his replacement for the part-time role by July 2019. Its first job posting got no response, its second attempt netted only two applicants. And the city further postponed the effort while looking for a successor for former Police Chief Hank Schreeder in early 2019.

When the city promoted Navarro and he took over the police department in August 2019, the search for a department watchdog was delayed yet again to allow time for the new chief to review the position.

The coronavirus pandemic, which started last March, is the latest reason the city has given for for holding off on filling the police auditor role.

City staff Monday indicated City Manager Sean McGlynn was prepared to publish a new call for applicants for the oversight job within 30 days.

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

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