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Why do police in bucolic Santa Rosa kill more citizens per capita than cops in crime-ridden cities like San Francisco and New York?

Wednesday, Sep 17 1997
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Unemployed, overweight, and deeply depressed, Kevin Saunders was spending most of his time smoking grass and telling lies about serving in Vietnam. Saunders' life had been heading steadily downhill for a long while. By August of '96, the end of the ride seemed clearly visible.

He and his wife, Claire, and their 4-1/2-month-old daughter were living in a small, one-bedroom duplex in one of Santa Rosa's poorest neighborhoods. Their total means of support was Claire's pay; she worked as a dental assistant.

Six months earlier, they had moved to Santa Rosa from Linda, a town just outside Marysville. Saunders, who had done odd jobs all his life, found work changing tires at Four Wheel Tire and Brake. But when his boss told him he needed to be more productive, Saunders replied with a threat to kick the boss' ass and was fired.

Conflicts with employers were just a hint of the extent of Saunders' psychological problems. Counseling and anger management courses had done nothing to control Saunders' temper, which had plagued him all his 37 years. After he lost his job, he fought bitterly with Claire and even tried to strangle her one night during an argument.

Saunders talked of suicide on the morning of Aug. 29, but Claire thought he was bluffing again. The night before, he had taken a gun into the bedroom, saying he would kill himself. And, according to police reports, a gunshot soon was fired.

"Are you dead yet?" Claire asked, poking her head through the doorway.
"No, I'm too much of a coward. I tried to shoot my leg, and I missed," Saunders replied sheepishly.

That next morning, however, he tried a different approach. He told Claire she should come home at lunch to "see if he was still around." When Claire arrived, just after 2 p.m., he handed her a folded-up note, with the word "Suicide" printed on the outside in capital letters.

He walked outside to his black Ford van and began rigging a hose so it would run from the tailpipe into the passenger compartment. But Claire was tired of calling his bluff.

"Kevin, I have to leave now to go back to work," she said. But she took the baby to a friend's house, just in case. And about 10 minutes later, it occurred to her that she should probably report the incident to police. She told the dispatcher that her husband was trying to kill himself and might be armed.

Officer Jesse Rangle, a three-year veteran of the Santa Rosa Police Department, arrived at the Saunders residence at around 3 p.m. Saunders and the van were gone, but Claire was there. She told the officer what had happened earlier in the day; she again mentioned that her husband might be armed, because two of his pistols were missing from their holsters. As she was speaking with Officer Rangle, her husband drove past the house, and Rangle jumped in his police car to follow.

After a few blocks, Rangle lost sight of the car. He doubled back to the Saunders residence, checked the side streets, and, about a block away from the Saunders house, spotted a man with glasses and a bushy brown beard. Saunders had left the van, and was walking back toward his home. Rangle got out of his car and drew his pistol, ordering Saunders to stop. But Saunders kept walking away from the officer.

Rangle positioned himself in the man's path and again ordered him to stop and put his hands up. Facing the officer, Saunders slowly hitched up his tank top, and stopped. He raised his hands, then lowered them -- and Rangle shot him.

The officer later said he thought Saunders was reaching for a gun. But Saunders was unarmed.

Saunders' suicide note provided the city of Santa Rosa and its police department with wonderful legal cover. The note said that if police tried to stop him from taking his life, he would take as many of them to the grave with him as he could. "Nobody will stop me," the note declared.

In the Police Department's eyes, the note was not a cry for help. For Santa Rosa police, the note was evidence that Kevin Saunders' death was the latest in a string of unfortunate but essentially unavoidable incidents.

Kevin Saunders' death, the city of Santa Rosa decided, was a "suicide by cop."

The death of Kevin Saunders was insufficiently unusual or politically interesting to soar out of Sonoma County and onto the radar screens of the Bay Area media. Eight months later, however, Rohnert Park Police Officer Jack Shields shot and killed a 33-year-old Taiwanese engineer for brandishing a 17-ounce wooden stick in a "martial arts manner."

Kuan Chung Kao had returned to his home after an evening of heavy drinking at the Cotati Yacht Club bar. Neighbors called 911 to report that an "Oriental" man was lying in the middle of the street, screaming, "Oh my neighbors, please help me."

When police arrived, Kao was swinging a broomstick in his driveway. Officer Mike Lynch had tried to startle Kao by suddenly stopping his police car a few feet in front of him, but Kao kept swinging, so Lynch stayed in his car.

He told Shields, his partner, to do the same. Instead, Shields left his vehicle and approached Kao. When the man refused to drop the stick, Shields shot him in the chest. He later said Kao had threatened him with the stick.

Community activists and other critics held up the Kao shooting as evidence of a primitive police department that was altogether too willing to use lethal force. Sonoma County authorities deemed the shooting justified. But perhaps because it was tinged with suggestions of racism, Kao's death caused a huge public outcry and eventually the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco agreed to investigate the shooting as a possible civil rights case.

Government records from the last 10 years reveal a problem that extends beyond Rohnert Park and Kuan Chung Kao. Law enforcement officers in bucolic, vineyard-dotted Sonoma County have shot and killed 10 people in the last 10 years. In seven of those 10 fatal shootings, the people pulling triggers were Santa Rosa police officers. In three cases, the victims had long histories of mental illness.

In all three cases, the shootings were found to be "suicides by police officer."

In fact, all 10 of the Sonoma County shootings have been ruled legally justified. But there is reason to question at least some of those rulings; four civil lawsuits over police-related deaths are pending. And critics of police policies in Sonoma County contend that proper procedures could have made use of lethal force unnecessary in most, if not all, of these shooting cases.

Moreover, those critics and law enforcement experts say they are highly skeptical of Santa Rosa's claims of multiple incidents of suicide-by-cop.

A survey of records from 1990 through 1996 shows that residents of Santa Rosa, a city of roughly 113,000, are more likely to be fatally shot by a police officer than residents of San Francisco or San Jose.

In fact, Santa Rosa residents are mathematically more apt to be shot by police officers than the citizens of New York City.

Jim Hopper was convinced that the Mafia, the Hell's Angels, and the police had been following him for 20 years. On the morning of April 1, 1995, the 37-year-old Santa Rosa man believed he had to get away, or "they" would kill him.

Since his release from an eight-month stint in the county jail two weeks earlier, Jim had been staying at his brother Jerry's apartment. During that time, Jim's behavior had become increasingly paranoid and bizarre. He was sleeping erratically. He had stayed up the night before, rearranging the furniture in the apartment. Earlier in the week, the family took Jim to a Sonoma County mental health services center, where a psychologist had recommended that he be admitted. But Jim had refused.

On that April Fools' Day, Hopper demanded the keys to Jerry's 1972 Ford pickup. Jerry refused. Jim went outside and broke a wing window on the truck and, when Jerry came outside, asked for the keys again. Breaking the truck window was one level of craziness too much; Jerry went inside and called the police. As Jerry hung up the phone, Jim kicked in the door to the apartment and again demanded the keys. Despite his brother's pleas, Jim would not calm down. He stormed outside and hot-wired the truck.

Jerry went out to try to reason with his brother, who urged him to get inside the truck; something bad was sure to happen if he didn't. Jerry wouldn't get in the truck, so Jim took off without him.

When Santa Rosa Police Officer Norm Stevens caught up with Jim, he was driving the truck slowly but erratically. Jim ignored the officer's orders to pull over, and continued driving.

Stevens followed Jim into a vacant, muddy, weed-ridden field; a backup squad car followed a street around the lot. Stevens' car got stuck in the mud and, he reported, Jim tried to turn the truck toward the officer. As the truck's tires spun in the mud, Stevens got out of the police car and drew his handgun.

He walked toward the truck, shouting orders for Jim to stop the truck. Jim shouted back, but his words were largely unintelligible over the noise of the engine.

According to his report on the incident, Stevens approached the driver's door, reholstered his gun, and pulled out his baton. When he opened the door, Jim reached to the passenger side of the front seat, grabbed a foot-and-a-half-long chrome table leg, and swung it at the officer.

The officer responded by striking Jim on the knee, a common method of incapacitating belligerent suspects. Rather than disabling this suspect, Stevens reported, the blow incited Jim to come out of the truck -- with the table leg.

In his report, the officer said he stumbled, fell backward into the mud, and dropped his baton. He saw Jim above him with the table leg raised, grabbed for his gun, and fired three shots.

During the subsequent investigation, no one questioned why Stevens didn't wait for backup assistance -- why he chose to confront Jim alone, when he knew the man might be armed and dangerous. Investigators did not ask what Stevens could have done differently to diffuse the situation, to avoid a violent confrontation.

Instead, they focused the bulk of their efforts on establishing how afraid the policeman was:

"I'm scared shitless, to tell you the truth. I'm really scared. My baton didn't work. I felt like it was a good strike ... this guy's behavior, just the way his eyes were wide open, and during this time the yelling from him never stopped," said Stevens. "This killing or being killed by somebody, was part of his yelling the entire time until I shot him. I'm real nervous, and I'm trying to really open up the cushion there, uh but I didn't want to turn my back on the guy."

Sonoma County police are killing people at a significantly higher rate than most urban areas in California. Santa Rosa police shoot and kill more citizens per capita than police in many major cities. The reasons for those elevated rates appear to be manifold, but a review of available public records makes one thing clear: Fatal police shootings in Sonoma County have received less-than-thorough investigation. And if experience is any teacher, police officers who shoot citizens there don't need to worry much about prosecution.

When an officer from one Sonoma County agency shoots a citizen, another Sonoma County police agency investigates. In the last 10 years, all the police shootings in the county have been deemed "justifiable," largely because the officers have said they felt they shot to protect their own lives or the lives of others. The officers involved have returned to duty after being put on paid administrative leave during investigation.

District attorneys rarely bring criminal charges against police for civilian deaths, and the Sonoma County DA is no exception. In fact, the Sonoma County DA has not brought criminal charges in any of the police death cases in the last 10 years -- even though four civil lawsuits are pending in connection with those deaths.

Police use-of-force expert William Geller says DAs are disinclined to prosecute police because of the difficulty in proving criminal wrongdoing "beyond a reasonable doubt" when the defendant is a law enforce-ment officer.

Jurors tend to believe police. Witnesses to a shooting are often other cops, who will stick to a police officer's version of events out of loyalty to one of their own. Non-police witnesses are often less than upstanding citizens, whose testimonies are hardly convincing. And sometimes the only witnesses to a shooting are the dead victim and the officer involved.

Geller adds that district attorneys are, generally speaking, less than enthusiastic about prosecuting police because prosecutors must rely on the police department to get convictions.

"The prosecutor is highly dependent on the police to provide evidence to convict accused criminals, and therefore needs a very good relationship with the local police force," says Geller. "The district attorney has to make a judgment whether prosecuting a police officer is worth upsetting the apple cart."

Critics say that the district attorney and police agencies of Sonoma County are, indeed, close. Many employees of both offices are longtime public servants who have known each other for years. Many of the law enforcement officers have spent their entire careers in Sonoma County, transferring between agencies, but always working with the same district attorney's office.

Despite the high occurrence of police shootings, Santa Rosa city officials insist that each of the cases was justified. Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh knows what it's like to shoot a civilian: He shot and killed a man while he was an officer with the Santa Cruz Police Department.

Dunbaugh refuses to call seven shootings in 10 years a trend: "From an academic perspective and statistically, it's not a trend." He has a different explanation for the numbers. Even though crime rates in Santa Rosa are down, Dunbaugh says police are finding themselves in more dangerous situations.

"Calls for service are going up, contacts are up. Officers are increasingly having to make 'shoot/don't shoot' decisions," says Dunbaugh. "Officers are running into more people who are armed and combative every week, no question."

Santa Rosa Assistant City Attorney Brien Farrell is the Police Department's legal representative in matters regarding use of force. He cites studies suggesting that there is an increased national incidence of "suicide by police officer," a term of art among law enforcement officials.

"Over the last six to 12 months, we've had a rash of incidents in Santa Rosa where individuals have provoked police into shooting them," explains Farrell. "These individuals all wanted to die."

Dale Robbins walked into the lobby of the Santa Rosa Police Department at 3 a.m. one morning last January; it was four days after his 40th birthday. He wanted to see "the Mormon police sergeant" -- the sergeant who shared his secret, that the police, the FBI, and the Mafia were working with aliens in a plot to conquer the planet Earth.

Robbins asked the woman at the desk if he could speak to "the Mormon officer," but could provide neither a name nor a description of the person he was seeking. He then asked to see any other police officer, and left as the woman called to relay Robbins' request. She told dispatchers Robbins was acting strangely.

Subsequently, three officers found Robbins in the parking lot in front of the police station, sitting in his red pickup, staring blankly at the dashboard. Robbins mumbled that he was there to see the Mormon officer.

After police searched Robbins and his truck for weapons, Sgt. Jim Carlson told Robbins he would have to leave and return during business hours. A records check had revealed that Robbins had a history of mental illness. But that morning he seemed calm, so the officers did not detain him. Robbins drove away.

An hour later, he came back and again asked to speak with a policeman. When Officer David Albritton came to the front counter to talk with him, Robbins pointed a long, heavy metal rod -- a "Club" steering wheel lock -- at the officer.

Robbins ignored orders to put the rod down, and began shuffling his feet, shaking his head rapidly from side to side. Albritton extended his baton, to distance himself from Robbins and prod Robbins to obey and put down the Club. But Robbins wouldn't drop it.

Carlson, who had dealt with Robbins earlier, came to the lobby to back Albritton up; Albritton, meanwhile, was holding the man at bay with his baton, warning him that he would use pepper spray if he did not drop the Club. Officer Carrie McConville had arrived in the lobby too, but she was off duty and unarmed.

Events escalated quickly. Carlson pepper-sprayed Robbins after he refused to drop the Club and moved toward the officer. Even after a dose of pepper spray, and after Albritton had hit Robbins on the leg with the baton, Robbins continued to hold the Club.

Carlson was surprised Albritton hadn't drawn his firearm. The pepper spray hadn't seemed to do anything to Robbins. So when the man stepped toward him, Carlson shot Robbins three times in the chest.

In an interview, Carlson later said Robbins had taken a swing at him with the club, which he was holding with a baseball grip.

"I'm scared to death. Think he's gonna hit me with the thing," he said in police reports. "And I figured the only way I'm gonna be able t'protect myself is to, is to shoot him."

During the investigation, nobody questioned the initial decision to let Robbins leave the police station -- even though he was acting quite oddly and even though a records search revealed his long history of mental illness.

In an interview with Santa Rosa Police Detective Dan Lujan and Jack Karr, an investigator with the District Attorney's Office and a former Santa Rosa officer, Carlson, a 21-year veteran of the Police Department, offered this analysis of the situation:

"You know, what I got the impression of that, he changed his demeanor just before I shot him is that he wanted me to shoot him. That he was forcing me to do that. That's the impression that I got. Ah, that's just a guess."

The Santa Rosa Police Department took the lead in investigating the shooting of Dale Robbins, which was ruled to be justified. A 1996 civil grand jury report criticized the investigation, noting that the only person on the investigating team with no connection to the Police Department was the deputy district attorney on the case.

Since that incident, under the direction of a new chief, Michael Dunbaugh, the Santa Rosa Police Department has adopted the practice of requesting that the Sheriff's Department take the lead role in investigating officer-related shootings.

The new investigative procedure is one of several changes Dunbaugh has made since becoming chief last July. He has arranged for a new mental health response team to advise police in crisis situations. He even equipped the department's SWAT team with "bean bag" ammunition -- 2-1/2-inch shotgun shells that expand on contact and incapacitate, but do not kill, suspects.

On July 4, Officer John Noland shot and wounded 48-year-old David Wharton, a suicidal man who had been threatening to shoot himself in the head. Noland said he shot the man when he pointed his gun at him. In the spirit of openness, Dunbaugh recently met with a local civil rights group concerned about the shooting. And Dunbaugh says the Police Department is trying to give the media all possible information about police shootings. The Santa Rosa Police Department's version of glasnost even extends to an open house next month for the people of Santa Rosa -- the first ever.

Critics of police procedure in Sonoma County say the chief's efforts, while promising, are not enough to change a law enforcement culture in which use of deadly force is far too common. Judith Volkart, the chair of the Sonoma County ACLU, says regardless of additional training and kinder, gentler weapons, accountability is crucial -- and is still lacking. Volkart says the connection between Sonoma County's police agencies is too close for any sort of genuinely independent investigation to take place, and the police are the only ones doing any investigation.

"The police are policing themselves in this community. There is no community involvement and there's no accountability directly to the community," says Volkart. "At this point, the investigatory power is maintained completely within law enforcement.

"We believe the windows and doors need to be open so that citizens can look in at how policy is being made."

Chief Dunbaugh says he is open to the idea of a civilian review board in Sonoma County, as Volkart and other critics are advocating. Such a board would give citizens without direct connection to law enforcement the power to subpoena witnesses and conduct independent investigations. The board would also have the power to recommend disciplinary action in cases where investigators found that police acted inappropriately.

But civilian review is no certain solution for excessive police force.
Civilian review boards are noble creatures, in principle. But at their worst, they become better known for political infighting and ineptitude than for their vigilance in overseeing police practices.

Reducing the high incidence of police shootings in Sonoma County would take more than civilian review. County police agencies claim to follow a countywide use-of-force policy that should, in theory, limit police-related deaths. But after police shootings in Sonoma County, investigators rarely question whether that policy has been broken -- or why crisis situations escalated into shootouts.

In Sonoma County, nobody has been asking hard questions -- why Officer Rangle shot an unarmed man, why Officer Stevens confronted a dangerous suspect without backup, why Officer Carlson let the amazingly disturbed Dale Robbins leave a police station.

Kevin Saunders' shooting was ruled legally justified. But justified is not necessarily unavoidable.

Kevin was hardly a model citizen. He was violent, mentally disturbed, and emotionally frayed. But his family still mourns his death.

Claire Saunders lives at the same address, down the street from where Kevin was killed last year. Last August, she told police she felt the shooting was justified, that Officer Rangle "was just trying to serve and protect and to save other people's lives." She also said she felt that Kevin "wanted to die."

But Claire, who now lives with a man who moved in shortly after Kevin's death, has since changed her mind. She has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit over Kevin's shooting on behalf of Saunders' daughter, Sierra, and Claire's two other children from an earlier marriage.

Kevin's mother has never changed her opinion of what transpired that afternoon last August. Today, 13 months after Kevin's shooting, Pat Baldridge is still angry.

"He should never have been shot. They're calling it 'suicide by cop.' What is that? What does that mean?" Baldridge says in a tone that is both soft and furious. "Because they found a wrinkled-up note? Because he was desperate? He needed help -- and the police shot him.

"I will grieve for the rest of my life.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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