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Santa Rosa, Sonoma County to pay $350,000 in settlement over violent arrest

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A Santa Rosa teenager who was injured during a violent struggle with seven law enforcement officers near Elsie Allen High School in 2011 has settled his federal lawsuit against the city and Sonoma County for $350,000.

The agencies admitted no wrongdoing in the case, but faced risks in trying to convince a jury that the force they used to restrain 17-year-old Marlon Whitmore during a psychotic episode — including using pepper spray, deploying a Taser and striking him with batons — was justified.

Whitmore spent three weeks in three hospitals recovering from his injuries, which included kidney damage that required dialysis. Two officers also were injured in the fracas.

The city, which had five police officers involved in the incident, has agreed to pay $210,000, while the county, which had two deputies respond, will pay $140,000.

“What happened to Marlon should never have happened,” said his attorney, Ben Nisenbaum. “We believe the settlement fairly reflects the injuries and damage that was done to Mr. Whitmore.”

Around 1:30 a.m. March 31, Whitmore’s grandmother, who lives in the unincorporated area southwest of Santa Rosa, reported him missing to the Sheriff’s Office, adding that he had been acting strangely and might be suffering from mental health issues.

A resident of Burgess Drive called police at 4:40 a.m. reporting a suspicious person pacing back and forth in front of their home. Whitmore, who is black, would later say he mistook the home for that of a friend.

Santa Rosa officers responded and approached Whitmore, but he was acting erratically and would not identify himself or cooperate with their instructions. When he put his hands in his rear pockets, officers said they became concerned he might have a weapon and tried to get control of his arms. At this point, one officer saw Whitmore had a pocket knife in his right hand, and forced him to drop it.

From there the incident quickly escalated as officers called for backup and Whitmore, who had played football and rugby, resisted officers’ increasingly forceful efforts to get control of him.

At one point Whitmore escaped officers’ grasp, ran to a patrol car and attempted to get inside, alarming officers that he might gain access to weapons.

According to court documents filed by Whitmore’s legal team, the youth was ultimately Tasered 19 or 20 times, struck with a baton 22 times, struck with a flashlight 12  times, punched 20 times, kicked 5 times, put in a choke hold, sprayed with an entire can of pepper spray, and finally hogtied.

Officers’ accounts indicate that most of their efforts to subdue Whitmore — including the Taser and pepper spray — had no effect. It wasn’t until a deputy stunned the youth with a series of blows to his head with a flashlight that officers were able to gain control of him.

During one portion of the struggle, a Santa Rosa police officer’s knee was severely injured, while another received neck and back injuries, according to court documents.

Both the city and county say their officers acted appropriately in the unfortunate situation, escalating their force as needed given Whitmore’s continued combative resistance.

The agencies decided to settle the case, however, instead of risking a jury trial for several reasons.

“The city elected to settle this matter because the plaintiff was a very sympathetic young man and the public sentiment at the time the case would have gone to trial was not very favorable to law enforcement and there is a huge exposure to attorneys’ fees in these type of cases,” City Attorney Caroline Fowler said in a statement.

The case was slated for trial in 2014, when tensions were high nationally over several high-profile fatal incidents involving unarmed black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, and Sonoma County continued to struggle with the 2013 shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez at the hands of a deputy.

Greg Dion, chief deputy in the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office, said he agreed a jury’s potential sympathy for Whitmore and the cost of litigation and attorneys’ fees made the settlement appropriate.

Whitmore’s grandmother, Kathy Parkinson Jones, said she realized how close her grandson came to being killed and is grateful he has recovered from most of his injuries. She said she couldn’t talk about the settlement in detail, but wished the departments had agreed to additional mental health training as part of the settlement.

She feels that a calm, kind gesture to someone in crisis — she read about a nurse offering a bag of Doritos to a person defused a similar situation — could be a more effective approach.

“It wouldn’t kill them to have a few bags of potato chips in the trunks. They’d get a whole lot less hassle,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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