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Activists respond to police-abuse report

By Greg Cahill

LOCAL SOCIAL JUSTICE advocates say they are encouraged by the results of a long overdue report on police misconduct and excessive use of force, but agree it will be difficult to get public officials to act on the recommendations.

The federal report, approved last week by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and leaked April 21 to the local daily (weeks before its scheduled release), notes that panel members are "appalled" by the police-involved deaths of eight people over a 25-month period leading up to the commission's February 1998 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 states.

The civil rights panel recommends 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; enccourage 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.

"This report is important," says Judith Volkart, attorney and former chair of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "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.

"I think the report has to be accessible to the community and people have to get together and educate themselves on what review boards are. The community has to take this into its own hands in these three locations and create public forums in other towns.

"I can see a couple of organizations maybe taking a leading role in organizing these public forums."

However, the lengthy delay in issuing the final report, which commission members expected would require only three months, has taken a lot of the steam out of drives to establish support for independent civilian-review boards, and allowed the Santa Rosa Police Department to create a civilian advisory panel that has no investigative powers and is little more than a vehicle for public relations.

"As far as momentum continuing and accelerating [goes], I think community interest [in civilian review boards has dissipated," Volkart says. "At the moment there are no efforts I'm aware of. People were waiting for the report. There were local hearings in Santa Rosa after the civil rights hearing and a lot of interest, but the mayor at the time said we don't need a review board."

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron, local law enforcement, and the editorial board of the Press-Democrat have been 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."

In a scathing April 22 editorial, the Press-Democrat opined that the 61-page report is nothing more than "reams of boilerplate, anti-police rhetoric [with] few specifics and even fewer helpful recommendations. . . . It didn't help that the commission chose to pretend that the police agencies' most harsh critics represented the opinions of all Sonoma County residents. Then the commission accuses police of 'marginalizing' its critics. Funny, we thought people who carried signs that say all police officers are killers do a pretty good job of marginalizing themselves."

SUCH PUBLIC ridicule isn't deterring social justice advocates. "It's not over, it's just beginning," says Suzanne Regalado, executive director for the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center. "Some of us were waiting for the report to come out to see what the next step would be, certainly with regard to an independent civilian-review board.

"There is a whole move to create open and free dialogue in our community that's being tackled in lots of different areas. It's time for our city councils, Board of Supervisors, and law enforcement agencies to be a part of that in a real way."

Indeed, the civil rights panel seemed to anticipate the vacuous insights of its critics: "[I]t 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 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."


Staff writer Paula Harris contributed to this article.

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From the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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