Community Concerns About Law Enforcement in Sonoma County

Chapter 4


The Advisory Committee believes that effective policing is a partnership between a community and law enforcement. Denying the legitimate concerns of either half of this alliance imperils effectiveness of the already fragile partnership. Police departments should not marginalize the individuals or organizations within their communities who voice their concerns about the type of policing being provided. This input can be a basis for constructive change for those departments with the wisdom to see its value.

Since we entrust police officers with certain privileges, including the use of deadly force, in order for them to perform their role, it is the right and responsibility of citizens to protest police practices they view as unwarranted, unnecessary, or a gross abuse of discretionary authority. We provide police officers with the responsibility to enforce the laws and protect individuals and property. We do not grant them the authority to be arrogant or to abuse this trust. For a law enforcement department to view citizen concerns about police practices as a threat makes a mockery of this trust, and the consequences are community fear, ineffective policing, and deteriorating police-community relations.

During its inquiries, the Advisory Committee would periodically hear references to the policing community. The Advisory Committee believes there is no such thing as a policing community. Neither are there secretarial, sanitation worker, nor chief executive officer communities. These individuals carry out work-related tasks within the greater community of which we are all a part. Law enforcement command, sworn officers, and other police department employees must realize that they are part of the greater community as well, and many have shown this through their volunteerism. However, when they separate from the greater community to protect individual officers who have transgressed they also become part of the problem. While cognizant of individual rights, we must all ask what can be done to remedy a situation, not place blame, or protect a transgressor. There can be no us or them, but only we.

Throughout the course of the Advisory Committee’s inquiries, the Commission’s Western Regional Office received testimonials from individuals and organizations praising the community activities of the police departments and the involvement of individual officers in formal and informal volunteer situations in the schools, school extracurricular activities, and community organizations. While appreciative of these comments, the Advisory Committee notes that its study was not an affirmation of community involvement. While their participation is laudable, members of law enforcement do not have a monopoly on community involvement, nor was volunteerism the focus of the Advisory Committee’s inquiry. The focus was departmental policies and methods of enforcement.

The Advisory Committee is appalled at the number of deadly incidents, justified or not, that have occurred within 25 months. The Advisory Committee agrees with community spokespersons who said that the number of events should be cause for alarm for all citizens of the county. While the officers were found to have followed proper procedures, the Advisory Committee questions whether alternatives to deadly force may have effected peaceful resolutions to the incidents and encourages the county sheriff and chiefs to review their training and procedures for such options. At a minimum, the departments must adopt policies and train officers to have the attitude that deadly force is the option of last resort. If they do not, the community is obligated to continue its efforts for reform of a system they believe requires drastic change.

Without commenting on the adequacy of the district attorney’s investigation of critical incidents, the Advisory Committee believes the district attorney has acted legally within his mandate to review incidents of deadly use of force by a police officer. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. Although each case was investigated as a unique episode, some community representatives believe a pattern was manifest and some do not believe the district attorney’s investigations were independent of law enforcement. These investigations, whether independent or relying on law enforcement, were not enough to build community trust in the process. The district attorney was within his rights to find individual cases to be justifiable homicide or within proper procedural guidelines if the facts led his office to that conclusion. However, the district attorney should listen to the concerns of the community which has significant questions about the nature of the process and what may reasonably be communicated on an ongoing basis to the public without divulging critical and sensitive information. The community deserves to know that the process is fair and impartial.

The Advisory Committee believes that the office of the county district attorney should review its protocols for involvement in critical incidents and domestic violence to ensure that it remains separate from law enforcement and relies on its own investigations for complete information before any determination of potential action.

During their efforts for constructive change of law enforcement, the community believed elected officials abrogated their responsibility for oversight of the various police departments by often suggesting that complainants discuss their concerns directly with law enforcement officials. While this may be a valid suggestion when the Department of Public Works or another municipal department is involved, elected officials must demand accountability from police departments. Some elected officials believed they had limited oversight and felt frustrated. As elected representatives of the community, good governance requires that they question, probe, initiate proposals for discussion, and follow through on community concerns regarding law enforcement.

The Advisory Committee found a lack of gender and language diversity among the law enforcement entities it reviewed. There is also negligible representation of gender and language diversity in the upper levels of the command structures. The Advisory Committee believes that the departments must initiate an aggressive outreach and recruitment strategy and increase programs for the retention and promotion of underrepresented groups within their organizations.

The Advisory Committee agrees with community spokespersons that increasing cultural and gender diversity in recruitment, hiring, and training, particularly for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and the larger law enforcement departments in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa, is important. The Advisory Committee believes that such efforts may not only increase sensitivity to all segments of the community but assist in diffusing certain incidents. Departments cannot ignore the human resources within the communities they serve.

While recognizing the present community policing efforts and some successes of law enforcement, the Advisory Committee challenges these departments to build on this foundation for greater police-community relations. At the time of its study, the Advisory Committee found a lack of community trust, inadequate accountability, problems with enforcement in domestic violence situations, and a perception of disinterest in complaint handling.

The Advisory Committee now addresses the question of whether a countywide civilian review board is necessary in Sonoma. It is clear that the level of fear and distrust of law enforcement for certain members of the community is high and there exists great skepticism of police ability to investigate fairly complaints and critical incidents. Based upon the presentations and its inquiries, the Advisory Committee is not inclined to support one civilian review board for the county, nor would it encourage the use of the grand jury for this purpose. What is clear to the Advisory Committee is that significant to the process of formulating, creating, and implementing a civilian review board is widespread dialogue involving all segments of the community. There cannot be a patterned review board that will fit all the dynamics of Sonoma County. Each jurisdiction will have to consider whether its law enforcement realities require the creation of a review board and, if so, formulate the review board that best reflects its needs.

The Advisory Committee believes for certain law enforcement jurisdictions in Sonoma County the need for a civilian review board presently exists and recommends that this significant dialogue begin. The Advisory Committee cannot support any proposal from the Chief’s Association for a one-size-fits-all civilian review board.