Santa Rosa to pay $1.9 million to people injured during George Floyd protests
The city of Santa Rosa will pay $1.9 million to five people injured in protests that followed the death of George Floyd, including a man whose face was shattered by a sting ball grenade.
The settlement is the largest in the city’s history involving a civil rights lawsuit and the Santa Rosa Police Department, City Attorney Sue Gallagher confirmed through a city spokeswoman Friday.
Marqus Martinez and Michaela Staggs filed the lawsuit last year, saying they were peacefully protesting and filming police when they were injured by so-called “less lethal” projectiles fired by officers. Three other plaintiffs later joined the suit.
News of the settlement came as the City Council is set to discuss next week a 23-page report that reviewed how police responded during the first, heated wave of protests in the wake of Floyd’s death on Memorial Day.
The report critiques the Police Department’s use of “less-lethal” munitions, such as deploying a case of 50 “barricade” rounds that were not authorized to be used against protesters. One such round struck a protester in the groin, severely injuring him. That protester settled a different lawsuit against the city for $200,000.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said he and the rest of the City Council approved the settlement in closed session after learning details about the lawsuit from the city’s legal staff and watching related body-worn camera footage.
“I think (the community) will see that the city is trying to own up to what they didn’t do well,” Rogers said of the settlement. “Now it’s time to have a conversation about policy reforms.”
The settlement was approved in closed session on April 20, according to city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens.
Izaak Schwaiger, the Sebastopol attorney representing the five people who filed suit, said the purpose of the legal action was twofold.
“One is to make whole the people who were injured. Some of these people suffered substantial injuries that will take them years to recover from,” he said. “Second, we’re hoping this will have a significant deterrent effect on officers’ behavior. Frankly, this was beyond the pale.”
Improved guidelines for officers preparing for protest duty would help defuse situations in the future, Schwaiger said.
“Horrific acts of violence by police in this country aren’t slowing down, so there will be reactions to them on the streets. It’s entirely predictable. If it’s predictable it’s preventable,” he said. “There were no defined rules of engagement; officers were left to their own individual subjective determinations of when to engage civilians with force, which is wildly unconstitutional.”
Schwaiger asked his clients not to speak to The Press Democrat or other media outlets about the settlement, he said, because the settlement is not yet final.
“It’s not advisable legally (for them) to make statements,” he said. “I understand that this requires approval by the City Council and the city’s insurance carrier. We expect both of those things to happen.”
Martinez, a Santa Rosa resident who had previously settled a brutality claim against the Sonoma County Jail, required multiple facial surgeries as a result of his injuries. Staggs was struck just over her left eye with a projectile, leaving a wound that required several stitches to close.
Three other plaintiffs — including a man who said he was struck by baton-wielding officers multiple times after he had been protesting officers’ dragging of another protester who had been sitting with their arms in the air — were named in an updated version of the complaint.
Along with Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro and the city of Santa Rosa, who were named as defendants in the initial filing, Santa Rosa officers Michael Paetzold, Nick Vercelli, Justin McLean and Michael Cameron Erion were also named in the updated version of the lawsuit.
Navarro declined to comment about the settlement through an agency spokesman. Earlier in the day before news of the settlement broke, he talked about the report about the department’s tactics during the protests, released late Wednesday.
“Did we make errors? Yes, we did,” Navarro said. “But we have committed to correcting everything we can to ensure that those don’t happen again. We are committed to this process.”