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[whitespace] War of Words

Women's Justice Center fires new salvo at SRPD

By Greg Cahill

DESPITE an official study of charges that the Santa Rosa Police Department mishandled seven cases last year involving violence against women and children, a local women's advocate is charging that city hall has failed to address adequately an alleged cover-up and "police defensiveness" over the issue.

Those claims, raised by victims' advocate Marie De Santis of the Women's Justice Center, were first brought to the attention of the Santa Rosa City Council in an Aug. 24 letter that detailed seven cases, all involving Spanish-speaking victims.

"This is the kind of snowballing of critical life problems that overtakes victims when police deny services," wrote De Santis in a Jan. 1 letter to Santa Rosa officials. "It is something we see on a daily basis, because police denial of protection and justice is so common, especially in the minority communities we serve.

"The regular denial of protection, combined with police's incurable cover-ups of complaints, is a deadly mix for the women and children of Santa Rosa."

De Santis wants an independent review of the Police Department's handling of the cases. Santa Rosa--like most other North Bay communities, with the exception of Novato--has no civilian police review board. Dunbaugh and Santa Rosa City Council members oppose the formation of such a review board.

In one of the disputed cases, De Santis charges, the detective assigned to investigate a child molestation report "dumped" the case, failing to contact the mother of the 14-year-old victim and accepting the girl's contention that there was no need to pursue the perpetrator because the multiple felony sex crimes had stopped. Further investigations, following complaints from advocates, led to a conviction in the case. In another, the actions of officers allegedly resulted in the suicide of an estranged spouse who was the subject of a court-invoked restraining order that De Santis says should have led to the victim's arrest and safekeeping. In yet a third, a Santa Rosa woman claims to have been beaten by a police officer after the victim returned home to find her son in handcuffs. According to De Santis, the victim attempted to file a complaint with the District Attorney's Office, which subsequently referred the case to the state Attorney General's Office.

In her Aug. 24 letter, De Santis asked the City Council to instruct Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh to refrain from contacting the state prosecutor assigned to the case so that Dunbaugh could not "in any way attempt to forestall, obstruct, or influence" the progress of the investigation.

Dunbaugh--who last fall dismissed allegations that the department has mishandled the cases--has said he welcomes such criticism. "We're always open to evaluations about what we're doing, right, wrong, or indifferent," he said, during a phone interview when the charges first came to light. "We accept them and follow through."

In response to the Aug. 24 letter, Dunbaugh has scheduled a March 14 meeting with community leaders to discuss complaints that the department has failed to provide adequate translation services to non-English-speaking victims of sexual assault. According to De Santis, the department routinely enlists bilingual family members, roommates, and neighbors to translate testimony from victims of rape and other sex crimes. That practice, she says, inhibits traumatized victims from filing a complaint.

"The more [the victim] holds back, the less work the officer has to do," says De Santis. The police just haven't taken this issue very seriously yet.

Police records obtained by the Women's Justice Center through a public records disclosure found that, while police dispatcher frequently use an ATT subscription service that offers translations in 77 languages, officers in the field seldom utilize the service.

Meanwhile, De Santis adds, eight more Spanish-speaking women stepped forward between August and January to register their dissatisfaction with the way their cases were handled by the SRPD. Several more have contacted the Women's Justice Center in the past few weeks.

THIS IS NOT the first time that social justice advocates have butted heads with the SRPD. In 1998, complaints about eight police-involved deaths--including several in Santa Rosa--led to public hearings on the matter by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission's report, released last May, noted that panel members were "appalled" by the police-involved deaths of eight people over the 25-month period leading up to the commission's packed public hearing. "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," the report stated.

The civil rights panel recommended that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park city councils create independent civilian review boards with the power to, among other things, investigate police-involved shootings or alleged misconduct; promote improved procedures for filing a citizen complaint; encourage increased ethnic, gender, and language diversity in law enforcement ranks; and support better training in cultural diversity and handling of domestic violence cases and of suspects experiencing psychiatric and drug- or alcohol-induced episodes.

Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron was quick to denounce the report. At an April 21 press conference, Condron asked, "Is [independent civilian review] really what's needed in this community? We don't think so."

Others disagree. "This report is important," Judith Volkart, attorney and former chair of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said at the time. "It's the first time an outside group not affiliated with local law enforcement has focused on the pattern of police behavior and the pattern of mistrust in the community, and listened to everyone.

"These are the recommendations, and we need to pay attention--it's everyone's responsibility."


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From the February 22-28, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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