Sonoma County Does, or Doesn't
Address The Issues of Death
during Law Enforcement Action...


The United States Civil Rights Commission voted unanimously to conduct a hearing in Santa Rosa, California in response to a very high number, per capita, of deaths involving the local law enforcement agencies. The panel wanted to learn more about the region's particular situation and try to identify the reasons for the unusual number of "critical incidents", as the agencies refer to the deaths.

After a number of articles in the area's daily paper, and letters from Police Chiefs and one of Sonoma County's Supervisors, the Hearing was downgraded to a State Advisory Hearing, lacking the supoena power over individuals and documents relating to investigations, training and procedures.

In the three weeks since the Hearing took place there have been two suicides in the County Jail's infirmery and a burglery suspect's fatal shooting by a Petaluma police officer.

This "Critical Incident" in Petaluma will be investigated by The Sonoma County Sherriff's Department. The jail suicides will be investigated by the Police agencies of Sonoma County.

The law enforcement agencies of Sonoma County have dismissed the creation of a Civilian Review Board as, "...unneccessary and overlapping ".

Here are some thoughts concerning the situation...

The rush to denigrate the recent Civil Rights Commission Hearing demands attention to the un-necessarily defensive posture of, for lack of a less divisive phrase, The Law Enforcement Community, it's highly visible supporters (yellow buttons, you know) and the editorial writers of The Press-Democrat.

The Commission came to Santa Rosa because there was an inordinate number of deaths during law enforcement actions. It came to offer a forum to the displaced, vulnerable and disenfranchised who may well fear the authorities through regular channels. It came to hear those groups who have long attempted to give voice to the un-represented, these "special interests" or "fringe elements" as our local mainstream functionairies dismissed them. It was the role of The Commission to hear the long ignored or worse, complaints this minority were taking to the majority. They brought to a public and open discussion the simple request that the same rights of equal protection must be honored for all.

One point that remains a complaint from all sides was the inadequate space for all interested parties to attend the Hearing. The Hearing generated so much interest, the most heavily attended hearing by The State Advisory Commission ever held in California, that it surprised everyone.
That is the most obvious testimony that the Hearing was of the utmost concern and hope for a community in need of reconciliation and mutual understanding.
The Chair requested those who had filled the room listening to the early panels to support their positions, to listen to the audio speakers downstairs and let others have a chance to witness the proceedings. Many if not most wouldn't leave, keeping others supporting both sides waiting in line. The public address system in two rooms downstairs was an attempt to bring more people into the proceedings. It was frustrating for all. Again, the main issue is the overwhelming interest generated by the mutual concern regarding law enforcement practices and procedures. This is hardly a failure of The Hearing, but a major substantiation of the seriousness and concern felt by the community of the basic issue.

The yellow buttons worn by many created an immediate, "them against us" attitude dividing the community from the beginning of the day.

I resent and will not allow anyone to wrest away from me my support for law enforcement through a button. The return of the American Flag decal style of intimidation will not seperate me from my desire for, and full support for the most professional, effective and respected police services possible for the entire community.
The Press-Democrat must look at it's own reporting and Editorial positions rail-roading The Commission before the Hearing. The Commission didn't stand a chance from the beginning.
Chief Dunbaugh's words dismissing the original Federal Commission as biased were echoed in editorial position. The Commisssion is highly professional and dedicated to a fair and even-handed review. By the time the various news articles from Mary Callahan, editorial clippings and the quite timely letters were placed in the paper, the degraded, ham-strung State Advisory Commisson limped into town cloaked with mis-representation and mis-trust.

The role of the local daily newspaper does indeed deserve scrutiny.

They provide the region not only with the news as they determine and interpret the story, but they also return the community's reaction back to the authorities for review. In many of these cases, of course the majority of the region fully back almost any action by the police.
The way it's reported, what other reaction would any reasonable reader consider. And for those that disagree with the paper's conclusion, or actually look behind headlines of not-infrequently colored phrases, their concerns are given only the just desserts of "fringe elements" or "special interests" and easily dismisssed. The Press-Democrat is a filter from the incident to the reader AND a filter from the community back to the authorities. This way the authorities most generally feel the public has given approval for their actions.

The "intangible" of the local daily source of information is embedded into the equation.

The immediate and unrelenting defensive reaction to The Hearing is unmistakable in both it's comprehensive and timely fashion.
Me thinks they protest too much...
The editorials repeat the cry and further the denoucement of people telling their own personal stories. More than once a person said they actually feared the police. Wouldn't that cause all responsible officers to do everything in their power to help change that sad situation? But instead they vilify the only forum these people, these friends in our different neighborhoods, could hope to trust as a safe and listening ear to obviously very upsetting problems.

The Commission, whether Federal, or, after the barrage of blatently un-fair criticism (the supoena straw-dog issue), the State Advisory Board, was essentially powerless. That's the amazing facet of this situation. The only real result that could ever have come from it's findings is a review removed from the immediate emotions. All it could do is to help define problems and offer a menu of suggestions to bring to the community. Then, it is only in the public's desire to work together where any positive results can be achieved.

The only way this Hearing could ever hope to achieve a positive result would be through the local paper. It certainly held the forum to bring concerns out into the open and address issues that demand attention. The Press-Democrat could have provided a responsible listening post for suggestions and possible answers.

And so, in the week following the Hearing, all that is heard is the law enforcement community deriding the Commission's attempts to help us help ourselves.

So... When we read in The Press-Democrat that it was the Hearing that drove a wedge into the community... I beg to differ.


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