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Why do police in bucolic Santa Rosa kill more citizens per capita than cops in crime-ridden cities like San Francisco and New York?

Wednesday, Sep 17 1997
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Unemployed, overweight, and deeply depressed, Kevin Saunders was spending most of his time smoking grass and telling lies about serving in Vietnam. Saunders' life had been heading steadily downhill for a long while. By August of '96, the end of the ride seemed clearly visible.

He and his wife, Claire, and their 4-1/2-month-old daughter were living in a small, one-bedroom duplex in one of Santa Rosa's poorest neighborhoods. Their total means of support was Claire's pay; she worked as a dental assistant.

Six months earlier, they had moved to Santa Rosa from Linda, a town just outside Marysville. Saunders, who had done odd jobs all his life, found work changing tires at Four Wheel Tire and Brake. But when his boss told him he needed to be more productive, Saunders replied with a threat to kick the boss' ass and was fired.

Conflicts with employers were just a hint of the extent of Saunders' psychological problems. Counseling and anger management courses had done nothing to control Saunders' temper, which had plagued him all his 37 years. After he lost his job, he fought bitterly with Claire and even tried to strangle her one night during an argument.

Saunders talked of suicide on the morning of Aug. 29, but Claire thought he was bluffing again. The night before, he had taken a gun into the bedroom, saying he would kill himself. And, according to police reports, a gunshot soon was fired.

"Are you dead yet?" Claire asked, poking her head through the doorway.
"No, I'm too much of a coward. I tried to shoot my leg, and I missed," Saunders replied sheepishly.

That next morning, however, he tried a different approach. He told Claire she should come home at lunch to "see if he was still around." When Claire arrived, just after 2 p.m., he handed her a folded-up note, with the word "Suicide" printed on the outside in capital letters.

He walked outside to his black Ford van and began rigging a hose so it would run from the tailpipe into the passenger compartment. But Claire was tired of calling his bluff.

"Kevin, I have to leave now to go back to work," she said. But she took the baby to a friend's house, just in case. And about 10 minutes later, it occurred to her that she should probably report the incident to police. She told the dispatcher that her husband was trying to kill himself and might be armed.

Officer Jesse Rangle, a three-year veteran of the Santa Rosa Police Department, arrived at the Saunders residence at around 3 p.m. Saunders and the van were gone, but Claire was there. She told the officer what had happened earlier in the day; she again mentioned that her husband might be armed, because two of his pistols were missing from their holsters. As she was speaking with Officer Rangle, her husband drove past the house, and Rangle jumped in his police car to follow.

After a few blocks, Rangle lost sight of the car. He doubled back to the Saunders residence, checked the side streets, and, about a block away from the Saunders house, spotted a man with glasses and a bushy brown beard. Saunders had left the van, and was walking back toward his home. Rangle got out of his car and drew his pistol, ordering Saunders to stop. But Saunders kept walking away from the officer.

Rangle positioned himself in the man's path and again ordered him to stop and put his hands up. Facing the officer, Saunders slowly hitched up his tank top, and stopped. He raised his hands, then lowered them -- and Rangle shot him.

The officer later said he thought Saunders was reaching for a gun. But Saunders was unarmed.

Saunders' suicide note provided the city of Santa Rosa and its police department with wonderful legal cover. The note said that if police tried to stop him from taking his life, he would take as many of them to the grave with him as he could. "Nobody will stop me," the note declared.

In the Police Department's eyes, the note was not a cry for help. For Santa Rosa police, the note was evidence that Kevin Saunders' death was the latest in a string of unfortunate but essentially unavoidable incidents.

Kevin Saunders' death, the city of Santa Rosa decided, was a "suicide by cop."

The death of Kevin Saunders was insufficiently unusual or politically interesting to soar out of Sonoma County and onto the radar screens of the Bay Area media. Eight months later, however, Rohnert Park Police Officer Jack Shields shot and killed a 33-year-old Taiwanese engineer for brandishing a 17-ounce wooden stick in a "martial arts manner."

Kuan Chung Kao had returned to his home after an evening of heavy drinking at the Cotati Yacht Club bar. Neighbors called 911 to report that an "Oriental" man was lying in the middle of the street, screaming, "Oh my neighbors, please help me."

When police arrived, Kao was swinging a broomstick in his driveway. Officer Mike Lynch had tried to startle Kao by suddenly stopping his police car a few feet in front of him, but Kao kept swinging, so Lynch stayed in his car.

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.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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