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Santa Rosa police: Officers’ decision to hit suicidal man with patrol car under review

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The Santa Rosa Police Department is reviewing officers’ actions after they made an unusual move last week, hitting a man with a patrol car when other attempts to stop him from stabbing himself failed.

The administrative review, done in every instance when police force is used, will determine whether officers followed department policies while trying to stop the man, Capt. Rainer Navarro said.

Officers found the man, who was suicidal, wielding a 6-inch kitchen knife on April 17 on Piner Road in northwest Santa Rosa, police said. Authorities did not identify him since he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

The first officers arrived at 7:24 p.m. and ordered the man to drop the knife, but turned to bean bag rounds and 40mm rubber bullets when the verbal commands did not work, said Sgt. Kyle Philp, whose violent crimes unit is investigating the incident.

Unable to stop him, officers formulated a plan to use a slow-moving patrol car to “knock him over,” eventually striking him in the leg with the vehicle, which was traveling 5 mph or less, Philp said. However, the man remained on his feet and armed with the knife until two officers shocked him with their Tasers. Police were then able to safely handcuff the man and get him medical attention after he stabbed himself more than 30 times, Philp said.

The incident lasted about eight minutes, he said.

“We want to ensure that we are within policy when we use force,” said Santa Rosa Police Lt. Rick Kohut, who will review Philp’s findings to determine if department rules were followed.

“It’s a good practice to have a review process that has two people look at (the incident),” Kohut added.

Guidelines for less-lethal rounds and Taser use are included in the department’s 2017 policy manual, the most recent made public, though a review of the policy shows no mention of using a patrol vehicle as a tool to control another person who’s on foot.

Kohut and Navarro were unable to definitively say if Santa Rosa officers had ever used a vehicle to control or stop a pedestrian prior to last week. However, they had not seen a similar situation play out within the department before, the longtime officers said.

Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County Sheriff’s deputy, legal adviser and use-of-force expert, said the incident was unlike any he had heard of before. He said he has seen instances where officers use a vehicle to immobilize a person such as a gunman who is hurting others, but not someone causing harm to themselves.

“I don’t know of any training anywhere regarding, ‘Here’s how we run over people.’ There’s no such thing,” Obayashi said. However, he said, police may decide, based on the circumstances, that it’s a viable way of approaching a situation.

Obayashi said officers are given the discretion to use any reasonable means to protect themselves or others based on the circumstances, even if it means using tools or techniques not specifically outlined in department policies.

He found it unusual that officers opted to use a patrol car in an attempt to subdue the man instead of firing a Taser after the bean bag rounds proved ineffective. However, he said, officers may have been hesitant to use the stun gun if they were farther than the ideal range to use the weapon — about 15 feet.

He said officers were put in a difficult situation, in which a man was holding a weapon in a public area, ignoring officers’ commands and seriously injuring himself.

“They’re trying to protect themselves, but they’re also trying to save him,” Obayashi said.

The man was sent to the hospital and remained there over the weekend, Philp said. Police on Wednesday were unable to provide further information on his condition or injuries, many to his torso.

Kohut said the review could result in several outcomes, ranging from changes in how the department conducts its training to discipline and termination, or no action if the officers acted accordingly.

Philp said his investigation will also look into whether the man broke any laws or was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In addition to the internal review, the department must decide whether the incident is releasable under Senate Bill 1421, a new California transparency law that requires police to disclose information about incidents in which officers use force against a person that results in death or serious injury, among other scenarios. Navarro and Obayashi said the determination will likely depend on how severely the man was injured by the officers’ actions.

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

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