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 Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
Instead, they focused the bulk of their efforts on establishing how afraid the policeman was:
"I'm scared shitless, to tell you the truth. I'm really scared. My baton didn't work. I felt like it was a good strike ... this guy's behavior, just the way his eyes were wide open, and during this time the yelling from him never stopped," said Stevens. "This killing or being killed by somebody, was part of his yelling the entire time until I shot him. I'm real nervous, and I'm trying to really open up the cushion there, uh but I didn't want to turn my back on the guy."
Sonoma County police are killing people at a significantly higher rate than most urban areas in California. Santa Rosa police shoot and kill more citizens per capita than police in many major cities. The reasons for those elevated rates appear to be manifold, but a review of available public records makes one thing clear: Fatal police shootings in Sonoma County have received less-than-thorough investigation. And if experience is any teacher, police officers who shoot citizens there don't need to worry much about prosecution.
When an officer from one Sonoma County agency shoots a citizen, another Sonoma County police agency investigates. In the last 10 years, all the police shootings in the county have been deemed "justifiable," largely because the officers have said they felt they shot to protect their own lives or the lives of others. The officers involved have returned to duty after being put on paid administrative leave during investigation.
District attorneys rarely bring criminal charges against police for civilian deaths, and the Sonoma County DA is no exception. In fact, the Sonoma County DA has not brought criminal charges in any of the police death cases in the last 10 years -- even though four civil lawsuits are pending in connection with those deaths.
Police use-of-force expert William Geller says DAs are disinclined to prosecute police because of the difficulty in proving criminal wrongdoing "beyond a reasonable doubt" when the defendant is a law enforce-ment officer.
Jurors tend to believe police. Witnesses to a shooting are often other cops, who will stick to a police officer's version of events out of loyalty to one of their own. Non-police witnesses are often less than upstanding citizens, whose testimonies are hardly convincing. And sometimes the only witnesses to a shooting are the dead victim and the officer involved.
Geller adds that district attorneys are, generally speaking, less than enthusiastic about prosecuting police because prosecutors must rely on the police department to get convictions.
"The prosecutor is highly dependent on the police to provide evidence to convict accused criminals, and therefore needs a very good relationship with the local police force," says Geller. "The district attorney has to make a judgment whether prosecuting a police officer is worth upsetting the apple cart."
Critics say that the district attorney and police agencies of Sonoma County are, indeed, close. Many employees of both offices are longtime public servants who have known each other for years. Many of the law enforcement officers have spent their entire careers in Sonoma County, transferring between agencies, but always working with the same district attorney's office.
Despite the high occurrence of police shootings, Santa Rosa city officials insist that each of the cases was justified. Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh knows what it's like to shoot a civilian: He shot and killed a man while he was an officer with the Santa Cruz Police Department.
Dunbaugh refuses to call seven shootings in 10 years a trend: "From an academic perspective and statistically, it's not a trend." He has a different explanation for the numbers. Even though crime rates in Santa Rosa are down, Dunbaugh says police are finding themselves in more dangerous situations.
"Calls for service are going up, contacts are up. Officers are increasingly having to make 'shoot/don't shoot' decisions," says Dunbaugh. "Officers are running into more people who are armed and combative every week, no question."
Santa Rosa Assistant City Attorney Brien Farrell is the Police Department's legal representative in matters regarding use of force. He cites studies suggesting that there is an increased national incidence of "suicide by police officer," a term of art among law enforcement officials.
"Over the last six to 12 months, we've had a rash of incidents in Santa Rosa where individuals have provoked police into shooting them," explains Farrell. "These individuals all wanted to die."
Dale Robbins walked into the lobby of the Santa Rosa Police Department at 3 a.m. one morning last January; it was four days after his 40th birthday. He wanted to see "the Mormon police sergeant" -- the sergeant who shared his secret, that the police, the FBI, and the Mafia were working with aliens in a plot to conquer the planet Earth.
Robbins asked the woman at the desk if he could speak to "the Mormon officer," but could provide neither a name nor a description of the person he was seeking. He then asked to see any other police officer, and left as the woman called to relay Robbins' request. She told dispatchers Robbins was acting strangely.