Sonoma County law enforcement unions respond to calls for reform

Amid a 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 call for reform this week by police associations in California.|

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.

Across the nation, the collective bargaining process and immense political leverage of law enforcement give police unions a major voice in how taxpayer money is allocated. In some areas, law enforcement and correctional agencies often account for at least half of discretionary municipal spending.

The city of Santa Rosa’s draft 2020-21 budget includes about $67.3 million for police operations and support, up $2.5 million from this fiscal year. That’s roughly 38% of the city’s general fund expenditures, and 15.4% of the entire budget. Sonoma County’s recommended budget for the next fiscal year includes more than $194 million for the Sheriff’s Office (including money that goes toward running the county jail); $96 million of that will come from the general fund.

Protests aimed at law enforcement methods this month have increasingly used the term “defund,” referencing proposals to ramp down spending on law enforcement and reinvest the money in other types of public safety and community services. An online petition calling for defunding the SRPD had drawn more than 16,000 signatures by Tuesday evening. It demands that a portion of city expenditures previously allocated to the police be redirected to programs supporting people of color and low-income residents.

Joe Louis Wildman, a longtime union representative who has advocated for law enforcement officers, mostly in Mendocino and Lake counties, acknowledges there are deep problems with American policing. But blaming their unions for that, he said, is “like blaming public defenders for there being crime on the streets.” In his mind, the fault lies with the public officials who help write the rules and allocate funding.

“If they wanted to fire a police officer who had clear violations, they could,” Wildman said.

That authority goes only so far, however. Law enforcement officers in California and elsewhere enjoy strong safeguards when they are fired for cause, often resulting in protracted legal fights even in seemingly clear-cut cases. And while Santa Rosa and other city councils oversee their appointed police chiefs, and thus local police officers, sheriffs are elected by voters and thus have near-complete autonomy over their departments, save for their budgets, which are approved by county supervisors.

Toying with those budgets by reducing expenditures for law enforcement would be a mistake, according to Bussell. He noted that staffing levels at the SRPD (currently 168 sworn officers, including those in management) are roughly the same as when he joined the force 20 years ago, though the city’s population has grown from an estimated 150,000 to 177,000 in that span.

“We’re willing to have discussions about reform and policies,” Bussell said. “But defunding is not an answer. I think it’s an overreaction. Historically, law enforcement has always had a role in keeping the peace. If anything, we need more training and more resources.”

Having cops live in the communities they patrol is a key component of good policing, he said, and the high cost of living in Sonoma County requires local officers be paid accordingly.

Vail agrees, and he dismissed the increasingly popular notion that many disturbances currently handled with police calls would be better served by deploying civilian community workers.

“You can’t send social workers to a domestic violence call,” he said. “These people are criminals. They’re violent and often carry weapons. Society is so morally decayed right now, no one is able do this except people who wear guns and badges.”

In addition to representing cops in contract negotiations, police associations raise money for community events, youth sports and summer camps. In other words, they operate much like other labor unions.

But some labor organizations are distancing themselves from the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Union of Police Associations, the largest law enforcement unions in the nation. (The Santa Rosa POA and Sonoma County DSA are both independent entities.)

The critics are bothered not only by some of the racist and anti-immigrant comments emanating from individual officers, but by police associations’ typical refusal to back pro-labor candidates and strikes called by other unions.

Several groups under the banner of the AFL-CIO, including the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Flight Attendants, have urged the wider organization to boot the International Union of Police Associations from its ranks.

Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs With Justice, points out that Bureau of Labor statistics show African Americans have the highest rate of union membership in the country. She said the labor movement is obligated to address their safety.

“Union protections were created to help working-class people address things like racism, not to protect anyone causing racially charged violence against them,” Ventura said. “While we can’t speak to how our local police unions are responding, we hope they are addressing the systemic changes needed to end violence against the black and brown communities most impacted by police violence.”

Representatives for the North Bay Labor Council, an influential umbrella group that includes dozens of local union chapters, plan to meet Friday to formulate a response to local law enforcement and the grievances of Black Lives Matter. Their central question: Is there a litmus test for being part of the labor movement?

Bussell, who grew up in Santa Rosa, insists his 136 members are open to greater community dialogue. He believes the Santa Rosa Police Department is less problematic than those that have made the headlines. He also understands that Black and Latino communities may perceive it differently.

“I might be naïve,” he said. “I know there are social inequities. But I don’t live through social media and the press, so I don’t experience that.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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