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Activists protest police-involved deaths

By Greg Cahill

JUST DAYS after the official release of the long-overdue U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report criticizing local law enforcement agencies for a spate of police-involved deaths between 1996 and 1998, a group of local activists staged a mock funeral to call attention to what they say are the latest in an "epidemic" of similar incidents.

That federal report recommends the formation of independent civilian-police review boards. At press time, the Purple Berets and Santa Rosa Copwatch were scheduled to hold the funeral in downtown Santa Rosa before a planned march to the Press Democrat building to protest the paper's coverage of the deaths.

The daily has repeatedly rejected the notion that civilian review boards are needed and has frequently mocked those who call for them.

During the past five months, five people have died, either in police- involved shootings or while in custody. On May 4, two Santa Rosa police officers and an unnamed SRJC officer shot Todd Dieterle after he pointed a toy gun at them. The police had responded to a 911 call in response to an armed robbery. The store owner had repeatedly told the 911 dispatcher that he believed the gun used in the holdup was a fake.

That same day, Robert Francisco Camacho was shot fatally five times by Rohnert Park police responding to reports of gunfire at a local mobile home park.

Last week, Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh held a public meeting of the department's controversial citizens' advisory board to discuss the most recent shooting. After a small turnout, Dunbaugh concluded that the department has widespread public support, saying the Dieterle shooting was the latest in a series of "suicides by cop."

He said the lack of protests was a clear sign that the public places no blame on the police for the incidents.

Activists disagree.

"That board is appointed by Dunbaugh, and people are aware of that," says Ben Saari of Santa Rosa Copwatch. "It doesn't have any [independent] authority--it's a group of Mike Dunbaugh's friends who will back him any way he wants."

The meeting wasn't announced until the same day, Saari says, and it was held at 5:30 p.m., when most people are still at work or commuting.

Three other police-involved deaths were the subject of the protest as well. On May 10, two Windsor police officers shot and killed Erin McDonald in her home after she made a 911 call summoning police. McDonald reportedly had a fake gun. The shooting was called "suicide by cop."

On March 19, James Curran died while in custody after sheriff's deputies handcuffed him. Two months earlier, Phillip Tony Medina died several hours after he was transferred to a local hospital after complaining of illness.

THE FEDERAL REPORT, approved last month by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and leaked April 21 to the local daily (weeks before its scheduled release), noted that panel members are "appalled" by the police-involved deaths of eight people over the 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; encourage increased ethnic, gender, and language diversity in law enforcement ranks; and support better training in cultural diversity and the handling of domestic violence cases and of suspects experiencing psychiatric and drug- or alcohol-induced episodes.

"It is the right and responsibility of citizens to protest police practices they view as unwarranted, unnecessary, or a gross abuse of discretionary authority," the report continues. "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."


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From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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