Police brutality is on the rise nationwide and Northern California is not immune.
Federal crime bills put more police on the streets and fewer restraints on their behavior. Police officers falsify their official reports to cover up their brutality; their fellow officers look the other way. The corporate-owned mainstream media slander the victims of police abuse and whitewash police behavior. Fearing lawsuits against their municipalities, district attorneys and bureaucratic officials rally around the cops who are almost never investigated or disciplined.
What is going on nationally is going on locally. In the past several months many of our neighbors have been the recipients of callous and inhumane treatment from police. The local press has not only failed to investigate these incidents, they have frequently distorted events to favor police. Police have shown little regard for people and claim they need these powers to do their job. Frightening national trends are being experienced in Sonoma County and the entire North Coast:
* Incarceration and harassment of youth for trivial “quality-of-life crimes”
* Prejudicial mistreatment of the mentally ill
* Indiscriminate use of deadly force on confused and frightened citizens
* Reliance on pepper spray to subdue suspects
* Withholding medical treatment from inmates at the Sonoma County jail
* Dangerous, high-speed car chases
* Use of police dogs to chase and attack people
* Inclusion in the gang data base for simply talking to a certified gang member
* Referring to peaceful protesters as “terrorists”
* Liquid pepper spray applied directly in the eyes of demonstrators
* CAMP raids on medical marijuana growers and their neighbors
* Paramilitary raids conducted by local SWAT teams
* Militarization of civilian police, with local police acquiring assault weapons
* Acquisition and use of bean bag guns and other “non-lethal” weapons
In 17 Sonoma County cases in the past two years, excessive force and neglect have resulted in death. In fact, in the slightly longer than 9-month period from 8/29/96 to 6/4/97, seven citizens died as a result of police interventions. Sonoma County currently has the highest rate of in-custody deaths of all the Bay Area counties.
Many of Sonoma County's police-related deaths were the result of "911" calls about distraught persons causing a disturbance. Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins has ruled each of the excessive force and shooting deaths (except for Dale Hughes) as "justifiable" use of force. With each of these rulings the DA is telling local police that excessive force is an acceptable way to deal with distraught persons or persons involved in minor disturbances.
Too often when police are called, rather than being able to facilitate a reasonable resolution, the situation (according to police accounts) appears to rapidly escalate to the point where police feel compelled to use deadly force. The Sonoma County Alliance for the Mentally Ill (SCAMI) advises that police in confrontations with people experiencing psychiatric episodes:
• Speak calmly and quietly
• Slow down the pace
• Be willing to repeat yourself
• Do not try to hurry a resolution
In December 1994, before all of the incidents, SCAMI contacted the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and provided them with training tapes. Regrettably, the departments did not employ the techniques in the situations described below.
In addition to patterns of excessive force, there appear to be serious problems at the Sonoma County Jail. In nine months, there have been four deaths at the jail or within hours of release. There is reason to believe that jail personnel are intentionally withholding medical and psychiatric treatment from inmates.
Below is a description of the 13 deaths we have learned of so far in Sonoma County.
1. 4/1/95: James Hopper, age 37
Killed by Santa Rosa Police Officer Norm Stevens
Officer Stevens had responded to a call of a fight between Hopper and his brother. When police arrived, James had left the scene. Police pursued him and were able to stop him. The police allege that after the stop Hopper knocked Officer Stevens to the ground, struck him with his fists and was about to attack him with a chrome table leg. Officer Stevens shot and killed Hopper.
An eyewitness reported that he saw police beat another witness to the ground when he refused to go along with the police version of the events.
2. 1/29/96: Dale Robbins, age 40
Killed by Santa Rosa Police Sergeant Jim Carlson
According to his family, Dale Robbins had run out of gas and went to the Santa Rosa police station to ask for help from a particular officer. When Robbins was told that officer was not there, he left. When he returned one hour later, police allege that Dale was armed with "The Club," a metal steering wheel locking mechanism and an altercation erupted. Dale was pepper sprayed, beaten and then shot and killed by Officer Jim Carlson. Police called it a "suicide-by-cop".
The family continues to question the police version of events and initiated a law suit. The suit was dismissed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joan S. Brennan in December 1997. She ruled that the plaintiffs (the Robbins family) had "failed to present evidence to controvert the basic facts of what took place at police headquarters." But how could the "facts" be controverted?
Since the police will stand together, the only eyewitness who could offer alternative testimony was Dale and he had been shot and killed. Further, according to the family, police have stated that the video camera in the lobby did not have any film in it.
The Dale Robbins case is the only incident that we know of where a police agency investigated itself. A grand jury inquiry found multiple errors in the resulting report and criticized the Santa Rosa police for their sloppy investigation. The report goes on to say District Attorney Mike Mullins made his ruling of justifiable homicide on the basis of inadequate reports.
3. 8/29/96: Kevin Saunders, age 37
Killed by Santa Rosa Police Officer Jesse Rangle
Police responded to a call about a possible suicide threat. By the time police arrived, Kevin had left in his van. Some minutes later Officer Rangle apprehended Kevin. He claims that Kevin did not keep his hands raised. Officer Rangle shot Kevin three times in the torso and killed him instantly. Kevin, who was dead less than four minutes after Officer Rangle encountered him, was unarmed.
One eyewitness contended that Kevin was "just standing there" and appeared bewildered. Another witness said that he did not understand what Kevin had done to provoke the shooting.
Police called the shooting a "suicide-by-cop" claiming that Kevin wanted to die. "Suicide-by-cop" is a ridiculous assertion; this is a form of "police-babble" that is promoted by police and taken up without question by the media.
4. 9/6/96: Dustin Clark, age 23
Killed by Sonoma County Sheriff Deputies Joe Quinn, Dave Smith & Beau Martin
On September 6, 1996, just one week after Kevin Saunders was killed, several residents called "911" around 3:30 am to report a man yelling and running naked in the street . The dispatcher reported the subject was hallucinating on some drug, probably acid. Sonoma County Sheriff Deputies Joseph Quinn, Dave Smith and Beau Martin responded.
According to the newspaper, the sheriffs struggled with Dustin for a couple minutes before restraining him. Although the sheriffs claim Dustin was combative, he could not have posed a real threat since he was naked and obviously unarmed.
When the sheriffs arrived, they sprayed Dustin with excessive amounts of pepper spray. When this made him combative, they hit Dustin at least 5 times with the battery end of a police flashlight. Then they sicced a police dog on him who bit Dustin five times. It was only when the dog pushed Dustin to the ground a second time that the officers made any attempt to physically restrain him.
One officer got on top of him and all three hog-tied him. Then two officers got on top of him and kept Dustin face down on the ground. Even through Dustin began to have difficulty breathing, the officers remained on top of him. They stayed there even when they discovered he had no pulse. The deputies did not move off Dustin until the paramedics arrived and instructed them to turn Dustin over. When they turned him over, he was lifeless; he was not breathing and he had no pulse. He was resuscitated several times but was pronounced dead later that day.
Pepper spray is a dangerous agent. Rather than subduing some people, it may send them into a rage. Other people have severe allergic reactions to it. Pepper spray was developed as an agent to control wild bears. Consequently its use is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, not the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers have guidelines for its use. Nowhere in any guidelines is it recommended that the victims be subsequently beaten, attacked by a dog, hog-tied or placed face down. Quite the contrary, the victim is supposed to be placed immediately in a reclining position and kept that way until medical attention arrives. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department has no guidelines regarding the amount of pepper spray to use.
5. 12/21/96: Edgar Avila, age 27
Died of "probable" suicide at Sonoma County Jail
Edgar Avila was awaiting trial for the attempted murder of an 18-year old man when he was found dead in his cell. Autopsy reports showed he "probably" hanged himself.
6. 1996: Unidentified, age 33
Died of heart attack at Sonoma County Jail
According to a report in the local Press Democrat newspaper in November 1997, an inmate died of a heart attack at the Sonoma County Jail in 1996. The Press Democrat got its information from a report from the Department of Justice and had no further information.
7. 1/3/97: Isan Frost, age 33
Assaulted by Sonoma Co. Sheriff Deputy Michael Raasch
Frost ran from a traffic stop made by sheriff's deputies. One of the deputies had severely beaten Frost in a previous incident. When he caught up with Frost, Deputy Raasch hit Frost in the chest with a flashlight. According to law enforcement, Frost fell down an embankment into a creek. After a brief search, the deputies left the scene. Frost's body was found drowned in Santa Rosa Creek the next day.
8. 2/15/97: Saloman Hernandez, age 28
Killed by Santa Rosa Police Officer Goldschlag
On 2/15/97 a cashier called "911" to report that Salomon Hernandez had left a gas station without paying for $5 worth of gas. Soon after, Salomon realized he had forgotten to pay and returned to pay. The cashier told Salomon he had called the police. When he refused to call them back and say the matter was resolved, Salomon became angry and allegedly threatened the clerk with a screwdriver.
Then Officer Goldschlag arrived at the scene parking his car in front of Salomon's . He went to talk to Salomon. Then he went to talk to the clerk. Salomon sat in his car. When Officer Goldschlag returned, he attempted to search Salomon for weapons. At that point, Salomon allegedly attacked the officer with the screwdriver. Goldschlag puled out his pistol and shot Hernandez.
Officer Goldschlag also killed Damon Lansing in 1989 when he refused to put down a steak knife he was holding. (See The Death of Saloman Hernandez.)
9. 2/24/97: Corey Goodwin, age 36
Killed by Sonoma County Sheriff SWAT Team
Nine days after that on 2/24/97, around 7:20 PM Rohnert Park residents called "911" to report that someone was firing randomly into the street. The sheriff's paramilitary unit, the SWAT Team arrived. A 19-year old girl was hit in the neck by gunfire and taken to the hospital. About 100 neighbors were evacuated. There were a lot of apartment buildings in the area.
After 4 and 1/2 hours the SWAT team tried to toss a phone into his room. Corey Goodwin is alleged to have responded with gunfire. One and 1/2 hours later, officers launched a tear gas canister into the room knowing that this might cause a fire. It did. Fire units responded. When the fire was out, authorities found Goodwin's remains.
Corey Goodwin, who was in his mid 20's, was described as acting strangely in the days before his death. He was withdrawn from others and had been observed talking to himself on several occasions. No attempt appears to have been made to rescue Goodwin once the fire broke out; it appears that he was allowed to burn to death.
10. 4/29/97: Kuan Chung Kao, age 33
Killed by Rohnert Park Officer Jack Shields
A little over 2 months later, Rohnert Park residents again called "911" to report that Kuan Chung Kao was behaving strangely and waving a stick in the street early in the morning of 4/29/97.
Mr. Kao had spent the previous evening at a bar. He had consumed a very large amount of alcohol. He had been repeatedly subjected to racial slurs and insults from some other patrons and had gotten into several scuffles. When Cotati police responded to a call, they refused Mr. Kao's request to arrest those who had provoked and assaulted him. They put Mr. Kao into a cab which dropped him off at his driveway.
Once there, Mr. Kao went into the street yelling, "Neighbors, please help me." He took off his shirt and assumed a praying position. He continued to cry out for help. Neighbors called "911" and Mrs. Kao came outside and tried to quiet him.
Police arrived without lights and sirens. they shone a spotlight directly at Mr. Kao in an effort to disorient him. Officer Lynch drove his car very fast right at him in an attempt to get him to drop the stick. When this didn't work, Officer Lynch retreated to wait for backup. shields advanced and claims his life was threatened by Mr. Kao's weapon, the wooden pole, no thicker than a broom stick. He shot Mr. Kao 3 times killing him within 34 seconds of when he arrived.
Police claim the use of deadly force was necessary because Mr. Kao, an immigrant from Taiwan, was threatening them in a "martial arts" fashion. According to the family, Mr. Kao, a microbiologist, had never studied martial arts.
11. 6/4/97: Joanie Holmes, age 35
Died in Sonoma County jail
Joanie was a prostitute and a heroin addict who was picked up for outstanding warrants. After less than 3 days at the jail, she was found dead. When Joanie arrived she appeared high but she wasn't sick. Soon after she was put in her cell she became violently ll. She repeatedly asked for medical help but none was provided.
Some inmates saw her in the exercise yard on her third day. They were aghast at her appearance. Her skin was gray, almost black; her skin was wrinkled and hanging. These are signs of severe dehydration which accompanies heroin withdrawal. When she left the yard, she returned to her cell where she continued to moan for a couple hours. Then there was silence. Two hours later, the guards checked on her and she had died. An autopsy performed by the Alameda coroner found she had died of a seizure and other complications of heroin withdrawal.
In late October 1997, nearly 6 months after Joanie's death, District Attorney Mullins said his office was still reviewing the case. He said, "Part of the issue is what kind of treatment was supposed to be provided and what was provided." To my knowledge a determination still has not been made.
12. 10/28/97: John Banks, age 45
Died 6 hours after release from Sonoma County jail
John Banks, an everyday heroin user, was booked into the jail on October 23 with his son and his nephew. At the jail father and son were separated and put in separate modules. The son next saw his father about four days later at their arraignment. The father appeared very ill and had to attend in a wheelchair; he had been vomiting and having chills. He had not been given any methadone, just some aspirin. Father and son were released that evening and returned to San Francisco. The son found his father dead a few hours later.
Assistant Sheriff Sean McDermott claimed that John Banks had been under observation during his time in custody and nothing caused any unusual concern.
13. 11/3/97: Kenneth Allen Stra, age 46
Died in Sonoma County jail
Kenneth Stra, a heroin addict, was arrested on outstanding warrants. He did not receive his scheduled medication and was found dead after spending 27 hours at the jail. According to his family, he was undergoing drug detoxification and was receiving medication for a condition associated with heroin use before he entered the jail.
14. 11/19/97: Dale Hughes, age 35
Killed by Santa Rosa Police Office Gregory Wojcik
Dale Hughes, a tugboat captain, was waiting for a Greyhound bus at 9:30 at night. He planned to ship out soon from Portland, Oregon. The bus stop is at a corner known for drug activity.
According to police, Officer Wojcik, who was cruising by, suspected a drug deal was going down and went to investigate. Dale took a swig of alcohol from a bottle, allegedly pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and fired on the officer. A firefight followed. When it was over Dale Hughes was dead and the officer injured.
According to the family's attorney, eyewitnesses tell a significantly different story. Over three months after the killing, the Santa Rosa Police Department has yet to produce one shred of evidence to support their contention that Dale opened fire on an officer or even held a weapon.
Please see "New Information - The Dale Hughes Story."
15. 2/25/98: Drue Harris, age 37
Died by suicide at Sonoma County jail
Drue Harris was found dead from suicide 17 hours after being booked at the jail. He was taken there after being seen in an altercation with his girlfriend. He was held at the infirmary because he complained of having sustained a head injury in their fight.
According to his family, Drue had been severely depressed for several years. While at the jail, Drue made a number of calls to friends for help but was not able to reach anyone. At around 7 p.m., he contacted his mother. He was very distraught; he was crying and talked about ending his life. His mother made some calls for help. When she called the jail to report his condition, Drue had hanged himself on the frame of his bed.
According to jail personnel, Drue was seen 32 minutes before his death and showed "no sign of distress."
16. 3/9/98: Carolyn Telzrow, age 47
Died by suicide at Sonoma County Jail
Carolyn Telzrow was found dead in her cell at the jail infirmary. She had hung herself with her bra. Her family stated that she was on methadone for pain control; she had a broken back. Jail authorities stated that they were not administering methadone, but were giving her medication for nausea.
17. 1/3/98: Paul Rodrigues, age 41
Killed by Petaluma Police Office Roy Loden
According to police reports, Paul Rodrigues was interrupted by Officer Loden while attempting to dismantle a burgalry alarm at the local homeless center. Rodrigues allegedly charged at the officer with a metal bicycle wrench in a threatening manner. Officer Loden shot and killed him. Although there was an eyewitness to the burglary attempt, he was not there two minutes later when the shots were fired.
Sonoma County police, like their counterparts across the country, have been getting away with murder.
To learn more about police brutality
Last year the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation was formed to promote a National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. It is an effort to bring together the many groups organizing around this issue on October 22nd to wear back to mourn those who have been killed by the police and to sponsor vigils, teach-ins, marches and demonstrations to increase public awareness nationwide.
In preparing for that first national day of protest, the organizers learned that not one government agency was keeping track of the number of deaths in the United States from police brutality. And the Stolen Lives Project was born. This project lists the names, ages and circumstances of the deaths of hundreds of people who die in police custody every year throughout the U.S. You can learn more about the National Day of Protest and the Stolen Lives Project at unstoppable.com.
The October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality has chapters in San Francisco and Sonoma County. To contact us call (415) 864-5253 or (510) 464-4563.