IT WAS FOUR WEEKS to the day that 16-year-old Jeremiah Chass was shot and killed in his Sebastopol driveway by two Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs. On Monday, April 9, in Roseland, the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Santa Rosa, yet another psychologically troubled person was shot and killed by law-enforcement officers. Richard DeSantis, unarmed, age 30, was gunned down in his driveway by a Santa Rosa police squad.
In both instances, a family member had called emergency services, stating that a loved one was having a mental crisis. In both cases, the responding officers claimed to have tried violent but nonlethal methods before fatally blasting the decompensating men. Chass was of mixed race; DeSantis was apparently Caucasian. Neither posed a life-threatening challenge to the cops who were called to expertly subdue them, not speedily kill them. Many people assume that these are justifiable homicides despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. There is no pattern here, right?
Like hell there is no pattern.
The Sonoma County deputy sheriffs who killed the teenaged Chass are being investigated by the Santa Rosa Police Department. The Santa Rosa Police Department officers who killed DeSantis are being investigated by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. The Santa Rosa Police Department officers who shot and killed Oakland murder suspect Haki Thurston on Feb. 27 in Santa Rosa are being investigated by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. And finally, the Ukiah Police Department officers who shot to death the mentally ill Cesar Mendez on April 2 are being investigated by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department.
This type of official back-scratching is a recipe for the cover-up of possible law-enforcement misconduct in all four homicides.
Indicating the trajectory of his investigation a few hours after DeSantis’ death, Sonoma County Sheriff Capt. Dave Edmonds told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, “Occasionally, in all communities there are a spate of shootings. That’s the way I see what has happened here. You look at the case facts of each independently, and there’s no relationship.”
Please note: Edmonds’ agency is in charge of investigating the DeSantis killing. But he has already declared that the circumstances of the DeSantis killing cannot possibly be related to the circumstances of the Chass killing and the other two homicides committed by North Bay law enforcers in seven weeks. And he justifies the killing of DeSantis as part of a “spate” of law-enforcement-related homicides in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. So if you are bipolar, schizophrenic or just feeling edgy, you’d best duck–or better yet, move somewhere else–because there is a “spate” of deaths going on. When is such a chain of events officially over? When it’s declared to be by Edmonds? By Santa Rosa Police Chief Ed Flint? By Sonoma County district attorney Stephan Passalacqua?
Hey, maybe it is not a “spate,” but a policy.
In July 2005, the California NAACP released a report on police brutality that is particularly relevant because people of color are in the minority in the North Bay. It is prefaced by Sgt. Ronnie Cato of the Black Police Officers Association of the LAPD, who writes: “White Americans don’t see the racism and the discrimination as we do. So when they are on those juries and things like that, they are much more sympathetic to police officers. They tell us all the time, ‘I don’t care what happens. You have a tough job. We understand what you’re going through’–almost sympathizing with the police no matter what they do.”
The NAACP report calls for police departments and the communities they serve to be held accountable for a change. It cites a 1998 Human Rights Watch study (“Shielded from Justice”) of police misconduct in 14 cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, which concludes: “The excessive use of force by police officers . . . persists because, overwhelmingly, barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses. Police and public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable, instead virtually guarantee them impunity.”
Human Rights Watch identified obstacles to establishing accountability as the pattern of hiring psychologically unfit people as police officers and the code of omertà by which police (and sheriffs) protect each other from investigations of wrongdoing. The NAACP calls for monthly psychological evaluations of police officers; training officers in verbal skills for use in encounters with the mentally ill, so that a potentially violent situation can be defused; a ban on the use of Tasers and guns, which kill people; and mandating the use of nonlethal weapons.
Since our system of law enforcement system has proven itself to be dangerously incompetent and bureaucratically incestuous, it is time for ordinary people to take this matter in hand.