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Bill that would strip bad cops of badges ‘long overdue,’ advocates say

A controversial police reform bill that was sent to the governor’s desk last week is receiving mixed reactions from Sonoma County community members, police and prosecutors who wonder what it will mean for local public safety.

Sponsored by Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, the bill would give regulators the ability to decertify officers who are found guilty of serious misconduct, including civil rights violations, felony convictions, sexual assault, perjury and excessive force.

It is one of the more contentious criminal justice reforms that passed through the Legislature last week and await Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

“This is a pro-law enforcement measure,” Bradford said before the Senate vote last week. “It protects the majority of men and women who do their job in a responsible and honorable way on a daily basis. It only addresses those bad actors.”

California is one of four states that does not have a system in place to disqualify law enforcement officers from service.

“We’ve seen 150 years of the police policing themselves, and it doesn’t work,” Bradford said.

The bill would create a division within the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to investigate and prosecute officers accused of serious offenses.

It would also eliminate some forms of immunity for peace and custodial officers; bar decertified officers from joining other police agencies; and make records related to the revocation of officers’ certifications public.

Many California law enforcement groups oppose the bill, but its advancement was met with celebration from some Sonoma County criminal justice reform advocates and officials, who say it’s a step toward increased transparency and accountability.

Reform advocates celebrate, law enforcement uncertain

“This is a reform that is long-overdue,” said Karlene Navarro, director of the county's Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, which audits complaints against the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

In an email to the Press Democrat, Navarro said the passage of SB 2 would have major implications for Sonoma County, because it would give oversight agencies such as IOLERO more power to force policy changes and investigate misconduct.

Currently, if IOLERO auditors disagree with the findings of a sheriff’s office’s internal investigation, they can only recommend that the case be reopened.

Under SB 2, the state division reviewing misconduct cases would have to consider IOLERO’s findings alongside the sheriff’s internal investigation.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch did not officially endorse the bill but said she supports "improvements to police oversight and transparency,“ according to a spokesperson.

Other local officials said they support the measure, at least in theory.

Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano, the former president of the county’s Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, told the Press Democrat “there isn’t a chief that I’ve spoken to that doesn’t support decertification for officers that have engaged in serious misconduct.”

“We don’t want those officers in our rank and file,” he said. However, he added, “our concern as police chiefs is we want to make sure that process is fair and appropriate.”

Stephen Bussell, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers’ Association, agreed, saying, “local law enforcement in general is not opposed to reform in reevaluating how we do things, and we’re not opposed to accountability. But many people that offer these bills don’t have the insight into the profession and how we do our jobs on a day-to-day basis.”

The association did not take an official stance on the bill, but Bussell said they were aligned with the position of the Peace Officers Research Association of California lobbying group, which opposed the bill.

Bussell said that a provision of the bill that would end certain kinds of legal immunity could undermine officers’ willingness to do their job, especially if they felt they were not sufficiently protected from lawsuits when they do act properly.

Bussell also said he worried that police would not be adequately represented on the advisory board and would not have input in disciplinary processes.

While SB 2 does limit police immunity from lawsuits, Bradford had to revise those elements of the bill after it failed to clear a Senate committee, the Associated Press reported. Additionally, the bill outlines a nine-member advisory board that would include two police representatives.

Bussell also said a separate decertification commission seems superfluous, since “there are already protections in place to prevent” disgraced officers from staying on forces or being rehired at other agencies.

However, Sonoma County supporters of the bill pointed to local examples of officers involved in misconduct going on to be accused of other major abuses or crimes.

“Most really bad cops don’t start that way, there are signs,” said Izaak Schwaiger, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney based in Sebastopol. “When they get away with breaking small rules, they think they can get away with breaking all the rules.”

Santa Rosa defense attorney Omar Figueroa pointed to the example of Charles Blount, the former sheriff’s office deputy who killed a man named David Ward using a now-banned neck hold during an arrest in 2019.

Blount had previously been embroiled in multiple controversies prior to Ward’s death, including making contradictory and false statements in court and other excessive force allegations.

“He was allowed to stay on the force and killed David Ward,” Figueroa said. “SB 2 could have gotten Blount off the streets before he did.”

Blount was charged with involuntary manslaughter, the first officer to be criminally indicted in Sonoma County for an on-duty in-custody death. His trial is set to begin in December.

“It's very common in California that if an officer does something significantly wrong, they will simply resign form the agency and go elsewhere,” said Jerry Threet, the former head of IOLERO and former chair of the county Commission of Human Rights. “When they resign, it prevents a record from being entered in their personnel file, which would show up in a background check at another agency.”

SB 2 would change this, Threet said, by requiring every serious misconduct allegations be investigated to completion and result in a finding, regardless of whether the officer resigns.

Sen. Dodd’s police reform bill, others sent to governor

One of the other criminal justice reforms approved last last week was SB 494, introduced by Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes Napa, Solano and parts Sonoma counties. That bill would require the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to provide agencies with training and policies regarding criminal investigations, interrogations, and interpersonal and public interactions. The legislation would combat investigators’ reliance on aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation tactics that have come under scrutiny because they can lead to false confessions. Dodd’s bill would not outlaw the practice, but offers alternative methods “that are more ethical and effective at getting accurate information.” Dodd’s spokesperson said that the senator is optimistic Newsom will sign the bill. Newsom’s office did not respond to Press Democrat requests for comment on the measures.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to correct the spelling of the last names of Ken Savano and Stephen Bussell. The revised story also notes that Jerry Threet is the former chair of the county’s Commission on Human Rights.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 602-736-5270 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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