Because we (you and I, the chiefs of police, the DA and the courts) don't hold them accountable for the less serious transgressions they commit.
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
He told Shields, his partner, to do the same. Instead, Shields left his vehicle and approached Kao. When the man refused to drop the stick, Shields shot him in the chest. He later said Kao had threatened him with the stick.
Community activists and other critics held up the Kao shooting as evidence of a primitive police department that was altogether too willing to use lethal force. Sonoma County authorities deemed the shooting justified. But perhaps because it was tinged with suggestions of racism, Kao's death caused a huge public outcry and eventually the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco agreed to investigate the shooting as a possible civil rights case.
Government records from the last 10 years reveal a problem that extends beyond Rohnert Park and Kuan Chung Kao. Law enforcement officers in bucolic, vineyard-dotted Sonoma County have shot and killed 10 people in the last 10 years. In seven of those 10 fatal shootings, the people pulling triggers were Santa Rosa police officers. In three cases, the victims had long histories of mental illness.
In all three cases, the shootings were found to be "suicides by police officer."
In fact, all 10 of the Sonoma County shootings have been ruled legally justified. But there is reason to question at least some of those rulings; four civil lawsuits over police-related deaths are pending. And critics of police policies in Sonoma County contend that proper procedures could have made use of lethal force unnecessary in most, if not all, of these shooting cases.
Moreover, those critics and law enforcement experts say they are highly skeptical of Santa Rosa's claims of multiple incidents of suicide-by-cop.
A survey of records from 1990 through 1996 shows that residents of Santa Rosa, a city of roughly 113,000, are more likely to be fatally shot by a police officer than residents of San Francisco or San Jose.
In fact, Santa Rosa residents are mathematically more apt to be shot by police officers than the citizens of New York City.
Jim Hopper was convinced that the Mafia, the Hell's Angels, and the police had been following him for 20 years. On the morning of April 1, 1995, the 37-year-old Santa Rosa man believed he had to get away, or "they" would kill him.
Since his release from an eight-month stint in the county jail two weeks earlier, Jim had been staying at his brother Jerry's apartment. During that time, Jim's behavior had become increasingly paranoid and bizarre. He was sleeping erratically. He had stayed up the night before, rearranging the furniture in the apartment. Earlier in the week, the family took Jim to a Sonoma County mental health services center, where a psychologist had recommended that he be admitted. But Jim had refused.
On that April Fools' Day, Hopper demanded the keys to Jerry's 1972 Ford pickup. Jerry refused. Jim went outside and broke a wing window on the truck and, when Jerry came outside, asked for the keys again. Breaking the truck window was one level of craziness too much; Jerry went inside and called the police. As Jerry hung up the phone, Jim kicked in the door to the apartment and again demanded the keys. Despite his brother's pleas, Jim would not calm down. He stormed outside and hot-wired the truck.
Jerry went out to try to reason with his brother, who urged him to get inside the truck; something bad was sure to happen if he didn't. Jerry wouldn't get in the truck, so Jim took off without him.
When Santa Rosa Police Officer Norm Stevens caught up with Jim, he was driving the truck slowly but erratically. Jim ignored the officer's orders to pull over, and continued driving.
Stevens followed Jim into a vacant, muddy, weed-ridden field; a backup squad car followed a street around the lot. Stevens' car got stuck in the mud and, he reported, Jim tried to turn the truck toward the officer. As the truck's tires spun in the mud, Stevens got out of the police car and drew his handgun.
He walked toward the truck, shouting orders for Jim to stop the truck. Jim shouted back, but his words were largely unintelligible over the noise of the engine.
According to his report on the incident, Stevens approached the driver's door, reholstered his gun, and pulled out his baton. When he opened the door, Jim reached to the passenger side of the front seat, grabbed a foot-and-a-half-long chrome table leg, and swung it at the officer.
The officer responded by striking Jim on the knee, a common method of incapacitating belligerent suspects. Rather than disabling this suspect, Stevens reported, the blow incited Jim to come out of the truck -- with the table leg.
In his report, the officer said he stumbled, fell backward into the mud, and dropped his baton. He saw Jim above him with the table leg raised, grabbed for his gun, and fired three shots.
During the subsequent investigation, no one questioned why Stevens didn't wait for backup assistance -- why he chose to confront Jim alone, when he knew the man might be armed and dangerous. Investigators did not ask what Stevens could have done differently to diffuse the situation, to avoid a violent confrontation.