Tensions resurface during special meeting on Santa Rosa protests
Three reports reconstructing Santa Rosa officers’ response to protests that overwhelmed the city’s downtown last summer reopened old wounds during a Santa Rosa City Council meeting Tuesday and reignited calls for greater accountability within the city’s police department.
The meeting was the first of two special sessions convened to answer questions and critique raised soon after the first protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last Memorial Day. Over several days in late May and early June, police deployed an unparalleled number of less-lethal munitions and tear gas canisters at crowds.
The majority of the meeting’s public speakers expressed frustration over the tactics officers deployed on demonstrators, even as a city-contracted consulting firm that specializes in police practice reviews found that the majority of officers’ force followed existing department policy.
“What I did see was a dragnet grab and book and charge of groups that were either standing their ground as peaceful protesters or leaving as individuals,” said Ted, an EMT worker who attended last summer’s protests and did not provide his last name.
The meeting began with a presentation from the current and former chairs of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, Jerry Threet and D’mitra Smith. They outlined the findings of a commission report that determined the Santa Rosa Police Department committed several human rights violations while responding to the protests.
The report, published in July, was based on first-person accounts from people who attended the demonstrations, who alleged a variety of misconduct by the department’s officers.
Those allegations ranged from disparate enforcement actions against people of color, to deliberate attempts by officers to conceal their badge numbers and a witness who said he saw the sexual assault of a Black woman who was groped by an officer.
Among protesters’ demands were the ban of tear gas in all protest situations and more restrictive policies around when officers could use less-lethal munitions during community demonstrations.
Several protesters were injured by such munitions. Some have sued the city and reached large settlements as a result of their injuries.
“I am asking for you support in calling for a ban for the use of these weapons and aggressive tactics like kettling,” Smith said, referring to the practice of officers cornering large groups into limited areas, which prevents them from leaving.
“Policy is our love language, but we have yet to see any real accountability from SRPD with regards to their procedures,” she added.
Michael Gennaco, a representative with the OIR Group consulting firm that reviewed the Santa Rosa Police Department’s internal affairs investigation into their officers’ use of force during the protests, encouraged the department to have a better system for storing and tracking the munitions that are deployed to protests.
Four unauthorized rounds, which are not meant to be used on people, were fired at protesters last summer, causing serious injuries to one person, the report found.
He also emphasized that the department needed to do a better job of targeting “those who are behaving aggressively” during the public demonstrations.
“By having more of that scalpel approach … that is a more effective way to manage the crowd and highly reduces the potential for individuals who are truly innocent from being struck by munitions” Gennaco said.
Both Councilmembers Tom Schwedhelm and Eddie Alvarez asked representatives from the OIR Group if there were any police departments that were a model for the fine-tuned approach of crowd management Gennaco suggested.
“I don’t know of an agency that has nailed it yet, but I know that kind of assessment of effective tactics is very much on the radar screen,” said Stephen Connolly from OIR Group.
Consulting firm Hillard Heintze, which was also hired by the city to complete an after-action review of how police and city staff managed the protests, commended the department for its adherence to its incident command, a system that ensured the right supervisors stepped into necessary roles as the protests unfolded, said Chad McGinty with Hillard Heintze.
But the firm’s review found there were not enough experienced supervisors within the department’s ranks to effectively manage the resources on the ground.
“There was simply so much going on, and the speed at which these events were evolving … there was not a sufficient number of supervisors to maintain an adequate span of control,” McGinty said.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro, who attended the meeting but did not present, said budget restraints would make it difficult to promote officers to higher ranks.
“In order to have more people in our command structure we have to be able to promote those people, and those people are coming directly out of our line staff,” Navarro said.
Navarro, his staff and Santa Rosa’s Office of Community Engagement, which has garnered community input about the police department’s use-of-force tactics, will present during Wednesday’s meeting, which begins at 10 a.m.
You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or email@example.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.
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.