Sonoma County mayors, police chiefs discuss police reform

Elected officials from throughout the county gathered in a show of support for community-led police reform Wednesday, moved by days of protests over the death of George Floyd.|

Elected officials from throughout Sonoma County, including mayors representing the area’s nine cities, delivered a unified and unprecedented show of support for community-led police reform Wednesday, a response to protests over the death of George Floyd and police brutality that erupted both locally and nationally in recent weeks.

“The last two weeks have shaken us all to the core,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who stood alongside Sonoma County’s mayors with Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin.

“For many of us, it’s a heavy reminder that the violence and the discrimination that black Americans and people of color face every single day. … It’s a stark reminder that we need to do a much better job.”

The afternoon news conference was hosted by Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, whose staff on Tuesday night revealed a plan to engage local leaders and community members in discussions about police practices and experiences with local officers in an effort to shape the future of the department.

“We are all here today because we care,” Schwedhelm said. “We see our communities are outraged. We see, we hear you and understand that changes need to take place. We want change, too.”

While the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and several of the area’s police departments already have agreed on some changes, such as banning the use of the controversial carotid chokehold, which can be fatal if applied improperly, elected officials pledged to launch fuller reviews of local police policy and procedures.

To that end, Schwedhelm announced the creation of a new public safety committee within the Santa Rosa City Council, whose members will be announced during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The group will offer guidance to city staff on how to engage residents and oversee a broader review of policing in Santa Rosa, Schwedhelm said during the news conference, held at a city building on Stony Point Road.

“It is our hope that this plan will strengthen community relationships and trust in the city of Santa Rosa, including the Police Department,” said Schwedhelm, who’s also served as the city’s chief of police.

Schwedhelm was joined by the mayors from the other eight cities in Sonoma County, each who have pledged to launch their own community-backed reviews and support reform initiatives that come out of those reviews, said Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli during the news conference.

The pledge is spearheaded by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative created by former President Barack Obama.

The mayors, Thompson and Gorin were joined by about a dozen local chiefs of police, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick and a representative from the NAACP. The gathering was closed to the public because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus but streamed lived on the City of Santa Rosa YouTube channel.

The group stood several feet apart from one another and wore masks throughout the duration of the press conference.

Schwedhelm said he was inspired to convene the group of local leaders last week, after speaking with Thompson, who has held similar virtual press conferences.

On Friday, he brought up the topic of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance pledge during a weekly virtual meeting with Sonoma County’s mayors. After receiving broad support for the initiative, he asked the city leaders if they’d be interested in participating in a public press conference about their united effort, Schwedhelm said.

Both Schwedhelm and Foppoli, who is chair of the Sonoma County Mayor & Councilmembers Association, explained that each city would develop its own plan for reviewing their local police force and engaging community members.

“These issues about police reform are not just a Santa Rosa issue, it’s a regional issue,” Schwedhelm said.

Sonoma County supervisors also intend to form a county committee in response to recent protests, though that group will focus on a proposed ordinance created by a group of local activists last year intended to boost the powers and funding of the county’s independent law enforcement watchdog, Gorin said.

Organizers have been collecting signatures to put the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance on the November ballot when the coronavirus pandemic halted their efforts, Gorin said. The initiative’s namesake, who died in 2019, devoted much of her life to teaching culinary skills to at-risk teens and young adults and served as chairwoman of the advisory council that works with the county’s law enforcement auditor.

County legal counsel, Essick and the Karlene Navarro, the county’s law enforcement watchdog, will advise the review process, Gorin said.

“I think now is the time to work together to change what we are doing, how we are working as a community and create a much better and a just community and county for all of us,” Gorin said.

Navarro, who serves as the sole auditor and director of the office, is advocating for the addition of two new attorneys to help review cases of alleged misconduct by Sonoma County deputies, she said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

Jerry Threet, Sonoma County’s former law enforcement auditor and one of the creators of the proposed ordinance, said he did not know about Gorin’s announcement prior to the press conference but was glad to hear that the board would consider the proposal.

“I’m a little concerned that they are going to go away from those principles of effective oversight without good justification and consultation from the public,” Threet said. “But I’m glad the board is considering (the ordinance).”

Rubin Scott, president of the Sonoma County chapter of the NAACP, attended the news conference. He said he and a group of black leaders in Sonoma County created a list of demands following the death of George Floyd, plans that were intended to improve the community’s relationship with local officers.

Meetings with Schwedhelm and Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro since the creation of that list have been positive and show the two are willing to work with community members on police reforms, Scott said.

“We’re not only having dialogue now, but we’re going to continue dialogue in the future” Scott said. “We’re going to try to have meetings once a month to come up with positive resolutions that we can all agree on and move forward together in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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