Sonoma County law enforcement unions respond to calls for reform
Amid a fierce national debate over the power and practices of police unions, the leaders of Sonoma County’s largest law enforcement unions offered mixed reaction to a groundbreaking call for reform this week by police associations in California.
Three large police labor organizations - in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles - condemned racism in a joint statement Sunday and proposed reforms that include, among other things, frequent training in crisis intervention, creation of a national database of officers fired for gross misconduct and a nationwide use-of-force standard that focuses on de-escalation.
Stephen Bussell, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, said he had not looked at the statement, published in an advertisement that ran in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Times.
“But I can say we’re definitely in support of reform at all levels, and transparency. So it’s a step in the right direction, as long as it’s meaningful. It’s a bold statement for associations to come out in favor of holding officers accountable, evaluating conduct, all those things. It’s a good message to a community that, hey, we want to have these discussions, instead of hiding behind the union,” Bussell said Monday.
Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, wasn’t nearly as conciliatory.
“If they feel they have people in their ranks that are acting on racist motives, clearly they need to deal with it. I find it suspicious that they’re bringing it up now, because we have SB 1421,” Vail said, referring to a 2019 state law that gave the public access to internal records of police shootings, excessive force, sexual misconduct and dishonesty. “But it seems to be what everyone is doing now - falling in line, kneeling before the protesters, submitting to pressure.”
The ad is a response to criticisms amplified since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Across the country, in newspaper editorials and TV commentary, detractors have accused unions of using collective bargaining to mute the disciplinary power of police chiefs and civilian review boards, and of impeding accountability by locking down personnel files and attempting to reduce the use of body cameras.
The local unions reject many of the complaints.
“As far as the criticism goes, I feel a portion is misplaced,” Bussell said. “To be very critical of any general population, whether it’s a profession or race or ethnic group - to paint with a broad brush based on the acts of a few - I wouldn’t do that with anyone.”
Vail, a former police officer and sheriff’s deputy, struck a defiant tone in an email statement and subsequent interview. He said his organization feels abandoned by elected and appointed officials, here and elsewhere.
“If things continue down their current path, their future and the future of life as we know it in America is questionable,” Vail wrote. “The fate of peace officers and the communities they serve around the county lie in the hands of leaders whose repeated failures have brought us to the brink of total social and economic collapse. Their actions are only allowed to continue because they work in the public sector where poor leadership is a way of life now.”
Karlene Navarro, director of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, thinks the reform measures proposed by the three California police unions are fine, but fail to get to the heart of the matter. She wants an independent agency that has the power to review complaints, hold hearings and issue discipline.
“Lawyers have it, doctors have it, even construction has it,” Navarro said. “Why don’t we have it for police agencies? There’s no reason this police incident stuff should be restricted, or only handled by officers’ agencies. Why don’t we have an independent state oversight agency like the state bar for police officers?”
Her predecessor, Jerry Threet, said the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association has left itself open to questions about its role by elevating deputies into leadership roles after their involvement in high-profile cases involving allegations of excessive force.
“I think that creates a troubling perception for the public,” Threet said.
He noted that Erick Gelhaus, the veteran deputy who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013, served as vice president of the sheriff’s association from April 2016 until June 2019, three months before he retired. Last year, the association appointed two officers who testified in defense of Deputy Scott Thorne when the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office charged him with felony assault by an officer in 2017. “Their testimony also contradicted that of their own boss, the sheriff,” Threet noted.