.Rohnert Park viral-video investigation concluded: Officer exonerated, questions remain

Rohnert Park has concluded its independent investigation of a late July encounter between a city police officer and an RP resident that turned into a viral video. The verdict: Officer David Rodriguez acted properly and within police guidelines when he unholstered his weapon during a tense but unnecessary encounter at Donald McComas’s house on July 29. 

A few key takeaways from the statement include the fact that McComas did not provide testimony though he was given the opportunity to do so. He’s suing the city over the incident. So what we have is Rodriguez’ version of events, and whatever version of McComas’ that independent investigator Sue Ann Van Dermyden could piece together through his social media posts. It’s unclear in the city statement how much weight was given to McComas’ digital-video recording of the incident. 

The exonerating moment, according to the city statement, was when McComas suspiciously ducked behind his truck when the officer drove down a cul-de-sac in response to a civilian call that someone on the block was violating parking codes.

The city isn’t releasing the full report, and since there’s no account of McComas’ version of events beyond what he posted on Facebook, let’s take a look at the key findings and see what might be missing from the picture:   

The city statement cites the report and says, “the officer saw the resident quickly duck behind the truck after his patrol car came into view.”

It does not mention that McComas appeared to be filming Rodriguez as his patrol car came into view and stopped in front of his house, and that McComas says, “He clearly didn’t like that I pointed my camera to videotape him.” And that McComas appears to be standing next to the truck and near the hood, not behind it, for much of the encounter as it unfolded.

Why does this matter? Next sentence from the city statement:

“The officer considered this suspicious behavior, and decided to investigate further.” The statement doesn’t note that Rodriguez began to film McComas from his cruiser before he exited it. “He thinks he’s being funny now,” McComas calmly says on the video.

Why does that matter? Next sentence:

“After the Officer got out of his patrol car, he also noticed other unusual behavior, including the resident’s agitated demeanor and his initial refusal to comply with the officer’s instruction to remove his hand from his pocket, which had a bulge in it.”

The video shows that Rodriguez unholsters his gun seconds after exiting the vehicle and that McComas dumps keys on the hood of his truck almost immediately thereafter. If there’s a moment in the video where McComas’ agitated demeanor might be at issue, it’s right there, and the behavior is anything but unusual. It appears that McComas had an opportunity to de-escalate the situation, and he instead mocked McComas while McComas was clearly freaked out—at the sight of the gun as Rodriguez begins to raise it.

“You’re taking a picture of me, I’m taking a picture of you,” says Rodriguez.

It’s not just lip service to say that police officers have to deal with a lot of tense and disturbing situations, we all know that, but they also have a very basic responsibility to not contribute to those situation—to not escalate. They have the responsibility to act in accordance with the fact that their power is derived from the very people with whom they are interacting, and arresting. 

Police officers are now operating in the face of a public that’s increasingly wary of their very presence, and a pro-police backlash that always puts the onus on the perpetrator, whether they’re an actual perpetrator or just some grieving and recently orphaned kid in South Carolina who is having a very bad day at school (that just got way worse). A basic compact between citizens and the police that serve and protect them has been broken, and the blame for that does not lay with the criminals but with people who should know better. 

This endless national spasm of viral-video encounters between police and civilians is a part of Rohnert Park story, has crept into the story because of Rodriguez and his peculiar inquisition of McComas: toward the end of the encounter he asks McComas if he’s a “Constitutionalist crazy guy.”

At the time of the incident, Rohnert Park officials put out a statement that said that the encounter was not typical of police-civilian encounters in their city. Ya think? And the city statement following the investigator’s report does the useful service in recognizing, however implicitly, that the issue here is police procedures in Rohnert Park. “In this incident, we recognize that there is the opportunity for improvement in some areas,” the city stated, without providing any details. 

I’ll phrase a suggested improvement in the form of a question: When was the last time you heard of a policing situation where in the course on the incident, an officer unholsters his weapon but then never arrests, detains or otherwise questions the person beyond, “are you some kind of Constitutionalist crazy guy, or something,” before calmly re-holstering the weapon and driving away? No charges, no handcuffs, no frisk, no backup—not even a parking ticket? Doesn’t happen too often, is my bet. 

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