May 8, 2018
For the past 20 plus years, I have been keeping track of the law enforcement-related deaths that occur here in Sonoma County. It shocks many people to learn that I have counted 99 such deaths so far. Most of these incidents garner only one article in the local paper and are soon forgotten. A few particularly egregious cases seem to hold the public's attention for longer. I am thinking of the deaths of Jeremiah Chass, age 16, and Andy Lopez, age 14. Both teens were shot and killed by officers from our local Sheriff's Department within seconds or minutes of deputies' arrival on the scene. Our local daily paper has never summarized these 20 years of deaths - that seems to be my task.
Recently, the Washington Post published an article describing their research on American police deaths for 2017. They found that nearly 1,000 civilians had been killed. The problem with that research is that the Post only counts people who have died from gunshot wounds. There are many other ways in which civilians die at the hands of law enforcement: deaths while incarcerated, deaths caused by the use of excessive restraint methods such as canine attacks, pepper spray, hog-tying, choke holds, Tasers and beatings, deaths from high-speed car chases and suicides in the presence of police.
Of the 99 deaths of the past 20 years here in Sonoma County, 65 (65%) are attributable to our Sheriff’s Department. Of these, 39 were deaths of jail inmates and 26 were what we call "street deaths." Because there is little to no oversight of the Sheriff's Department and no reliable investigation into any of these deaths, we cannot say with authority what the causes of each death was. Our local paper very rarely does any investigation into these deaths. In most cases, their reports are summaries of police press releases and interviews with police representatives. However, some general conclusions can be drawn from local news articles along with information gleaned from family members and serious investigations conducted in other jurisdictions.
Eleven appear to be caused by the sudden withdrawal from long-term use of drugs or alcohol. Another eight seem to be from medical neglect, a common phenomenon of incarceration nationwide. After being forcibly removed from his cell, one inmate, Kenneth Suite, suffered a heart attack, entered a coma and died ten months later. I would call that a death by brutality. In the case of inmate Paul Daniel, sheriffs say that he became combative and had to be restrained; inmates say he was beaten to death. There is no public information available regarding the demise of the other eight. What we can say with a high degree of certainty is that these people would not have died when they did if they had not been incarcerated at the local jail.
Two people died as the result of high-speed car chases. Another two died from injuries sustained from the use of a Taser. Three were reported to be suicides committed in the presence of sheriffs. Finally, 15 people were shot to death. At least ten of the street deaths were initiated with a 911 call from a family member seeking assistance with a relative who was distraught or having a psychotic episode.
One of the most significant is that instead of de-escalating a tense situation, deputies overreact making a bad situation much, much worse than it needs to be. Jeremiah Chass, who was having a psychotic episode, was shot and killed within six minutes of deputies arriving at his home. Andy Lopez was shot and killed within three seconds (!!!) of a deputy spotting him in a field with the toy rifle. In the case of Glenn Swindell, an everyday domestic dispute rapidly became an armed siege. It lasted over 10 hours, brought out "upwards of 40 Sonoma County Sheriffs who threw concussion grenades, rammed an armored personal carrier/battering ram into the garage door, pumped CS gas into an enclosed attic where Glen Raymond Swindell was cowering in fear for his life. "
But, without question, the most egregious behavior is found in the Sheriff's Department. Reform, re-training and a new style of leadership is desperately needed there. This kind of leadershipcannot come from within a department that is failing on so many levels. It must come from outside.
That is why I support John Mutz, former Los Angeles police captain, who has lived in Sonoma County for the past six years. John is an outsider who has spent much of the last 20 years engaged in a national effort to reform police procedures.
Karen Saari was the head researcher for the Stolen Lives Project, the first known national study of civilians who lost their lives in interactions with law enforcement. She can be reached at email@example.com you would like to see a spreadsheet of her resources. http://www.stolenlives.org/updates.html
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