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Letters to Authorities

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Case Complaints Against SRPD,
May thru Aug., 2,000

Women's Justice Center Centro de Justicia Para Mujeres 250 Sebastopol Rd.,
Santa Rosa, CA 95407
Tel. (707) 575-3150

August 24, 2000

Mayor Janet Condron and Santa Rosa City Council Members Santa Rosa, CA

OPEN LETTER RE: Case Complaints Against Santa Rosa Police Department Handling of Violence Against Women and Children May thru August, 2,000

Dear Mayor Janet Condron and Santa Rosa
City Council Members,

We are writing to ask your help with a problem we have been trying to resolve for the past year and a half without success. During this time we have had scores of complaints about Santa Rosa Police Department's response to cases of violence against women and children. Over this time we have taken these complaints to many officials at different ranks in the department. And we have presented the complaints in varying manners in hopes of finding a way to be heard and of motivating corrections.

Last December, seeing no improvement in the situation, we phoned Santa Rosa Police Commander Swanson and expressed our concern that the department's response to domestic violence was getting very sloppy, most noticeably that there was a general failure to enforce restraining orders, and an overall disregard for Spanish- speaking victims. In response, Commander Swanson arranged a meeting between Women's Justice Center and Sgt. Schwedhelm, head of the Sex Crimes and Family Violence Unit, and Sgt. Briggs, head of Patrol.

On January 6, 2000, we met with Sgts. Schwedhelm and Briggs for about three hours during which time we laid out the problems we were seeing. In addition to the complaints stated above we detailed our concerns about failures to write reports, the frequent misuse of children and family members as translators, failures to take threats seriously, inability to recognize high lethality risk cases, disrespect for victims, and more. In the couple months following this meeting we phoned Sgt. Briggs with concerns about the department's handling of two new cases.

In June, we again called Commander Swanson, this time with our concerns regarding the handling of a new May case that resulted in a domestic violence related death. Commander Swanson then assigned Sgt. Oliveras to look into the situation. After more than a month of investigating, Oliveras concluded that officers had done nothing wrong. However, at no time during his examination of the case did Oliveras speak to, nor attempt to contact, the principle witnesses in the case. As on other occasions when we have asked the department to review a complaint, we have felt the response was obstructionist, defensive, purposely incomplete., and had no intention of finding the truth.

In mid-August we again phoned Commander Swanson. This time to express our dissatisfaction with Oliveras' examination of the death case, and to bring four brand new case complaints to his attention. And though Swanson has turned these cases over to internal investigations and/or to a relevant sargeant, we are also bringing them to your attention because after a year and a half of this, we have lost confidence in the ability of SRPD to either investigate itself or to correct the problems. And we are certain that, left uncorrected, these problems will lead to yet more unnecessary suffering and tragedy for the women of Santa Rosa.

The following seven case complaints have come to us between May and August, 2000.They are similar to the flow of such case complaints we've been seeing for the last year and a half. These cases represent only those complaints where we have been given permission to pass them on. There are others where victims did not want to come forward. Though the narration of the following seven cases at this writing uses changed names and does not specify exact dates, the full information is available to you on request.

We ask your help in three ways. One, that you provide for an independent investigation into the following complaints. Two, that you oversee that necessary changes are made in the department's handling of rape and domestic violence. And three, that the city provide an ongoing mechanism by which such complaints can be independently investigated and necessary corrections implemented.

And finally we would like to arrange a time to present our input to you on what we believe is needed to correct the situation.

Case #1, Chronicle of An Announced Death

t the beginning of May, Margarita's ex-boyfriend was calling her again. In fact, he'd already called her a number of times this day, despite the restraining order she had obtained, despite the many times she had told him she didn't want to be with him, despite her pleadings with him to get help.

On this phone call, Margarita's friend Gloria intervened and answered the phone. On the phone, Javier launched into an all too familiar refrain. If Margarita didn't come back to him, he told Gloria repeatedly, he would kill himself. Gloria tried in vain to talk with Javier, reason with him, calm him down, change his course. But Javier just kept threatening and trying to enlist Gloria into making Margarita come back.

Gloria ended the conversation and the two women talked. At first Margarita didn't want to take Gloria's advice to call the police. But then she agreed; Javier needed help, he had to be stopped, the situation was out of control.

Gloria's voice on the police dispatch tape we obtained is clear and urgent. "I have a lady here who has a restraining order", she can be heard to say on the tape, "Her boyfriend is calling her by phone, and he's threatening her."

When the Santa Rosa Police officer arrived Gloria translated for Margarita and relayed the details of her own conversation with Javier. According to the women, together they told the officer the details of the recent events; beginning in March when Gloria had broken up with Javier and gotten a restraining order against him. The women showed the officer the restraining order which was in effect.

According to the women, they told the officer that even back then Javier was threatening to commit suicide if Margarita didn't get back with him. And that just a month ago when Margarita wouldn't give in to his threat, Javier had, in fact, made a suicide attempt that was serious enough to put him in the hospital for three weeks. They told the officer that while in the hospital Javier was begging Margarita for help and that Margarita went to him in the hospital half believing that maybe she could help. But when Javier got out of the hospital, Margarita could see it wouldn't work. She broke up with him again a few days before this call to police. And Javier had been calling ever since.

According to Gloria, Gloria told the officer that she herself had just talked with Javier before calling the police, and Javier was again threatening to commit suicide if Margarita didn't come back with him. Gloria told the officer the details of Javier's threats. She told the officer that's why she called.

The officer then put through a call to Javier at his home, at times using his own limited Spanish and at times using Gloria to translate. The officer reminded Javier that he was violating the order, and told him that if he called again he would be arrested. The officer then asked Javier for his address. When Javier refused to give his address, the officer told the women not to worry, he could get the address from the reverse telephone directory available to police.

The conversation with Javier was ended. According to the women, during the call the officer never talked to Javier about the suicide threat. When the officer and his partner left, Margarita and Gloria just assumed the officers would talk to Javier about the suicide threats when they got to his home. Margarita went to work the next morning feeling relief that she had gotten help. She picked up her girls from school. And back they came that afternoon to what they hoped would be the beginning of peace. Margarita opened the door to her room, her two girls in tow. Javier's body lay lifeless on the floor. He had killed himself. Gloria's peace was pierced with wrenching, inconsolable pain.

We obtained this information in separate interviews with the two women the day after Javier's suicide. The following questions need to be answered:

  1. State law (PC 836 (c) (1)) requires that police make an arrest on restraining order violations. Why didn't the officer arrest? Why didn't the officer go to the suspect's home? Why didn't the officer issue a `stop and hold'? We feel that if handled correctly, the suspect would have been taken into custody and put under suicide watch at the jail.

  2. The crime report written by the officer does not mention Javier's threat to kill himself. Did the officer write a false report?

  3. Even as written, the officer's own report makes clear the officer knew of Javier's very recent suicide attempt in response to Margarita's first break up with him, the officer knew of Javier's hospitalization for that attempt, of the more recent break up, and of multiple recent restraining order violations. How is it the officer didn't recognize a potential for lethality in this case?

  4. SRPD CAD records show that Santa Rosa Police responded to a call involving Javier on the day before the women called the police. A police report has never been written on that incident. However, there is information which leads us to believe that on that call police found Javier saying he was distraught over his breakup with Margarita, and saying that he wanted to hurt himself, and that he couldn't go on living if he couldn't get back with Margarita, and that police transported Javier to his home and dropped him off. The CAD record indicates that the officer went to the address of Javier's home shortly after responding to the location of the incident. What happened at that incident and why was no report written? Why didn't the officer take Javier into custody?

  5. When Commander Swanson asked Sgt. Oliveras to look into our complaint, why, in the more than a month and a half of investigating, did Sgt. Oliveras make no attempt to contact either one of the women?

Case #2, Suffer the Children

e received a call from a Spanish-speaking mother. Her voice was desperate and exasperated. A full two months before this call to us, the mother said, she had gone with her daughter to the doctor. The girl had told the doctor about having sex with a man in his twenties. The girl was under 14 years of age, a fact that makes such sexual relations between the adult and the child an automatic felony child molestation.

At that time two months before, the doctor had called the mother into the office and together they called the Santa Rosa police. When the police arrived, the mother, the doctor, and the girl reported openly to the police.

Now the mother was telling us that in the more than two months since she had never heard from the police again, despite the fact that the she hasn't moved or changed phone numbers. The mother told us that there has never been any forensic examination of the child, and there has been no interview of the child at Redwood Children's Center, nor has there been any attempt to set up this standard interview.

We called and talked to the doctor who confirmed to us the parts of the story she was involved in, including that the mother and daughter had cooperated fully with the police. The doctor also told us that she, herself, had never heard from police again after that initial report was taken.

It wasn't until we at Women's Justice Center made a call to police following the mother's call to us that a detective made arrangements to go with the mother and girl so they could point out the home where the man lived. That was more than a month ago. And they haven't heard from the police since.

Case #3, No Sanctuary

n English-speaking woman called. She said she was fleeing domestic violence in another state and that she had come to Santa Rosa because she has a relative here. She said that within an hour of her arriving in Santa Rosa she had gone with her relative to the Santa Rosa Police Department to report the domestic violence, and to report that she had fled a domestic violence situation with her child.

She said she and her relative went to the front desk and told the police technician her story; that she was fleeing domestic violence from another state, that her husband had threatened to kill her, that she was afraid for her life, and she wanted to make a report. The police technician at the front desk called up a supervisor relaying the information and asking for a course of action. When the technician got off the phone with her supervisor, the technician told the woman that `we (Santa Rosa Police) don't have an extra little file for cases like that, and if it didn't happen in our county, there's nothing we can do.' We then talked separately to the woman's relative. The relative confirmed the account of events as they occurred at Santa Rosa Police Department..

It is, and has been for many years, standard police practice to do a courtesy report when a victim flees domestic violence, or any other violent crime, from a distant jurisdiction. The courtesy report is then mailed to the police department at the appropriate jurisdiction where the follow-up investigation is done. When we at Women's Justice Center called the shift sargeant to pass on the woman's complaint and ask that the report be done, the sargeant argued with us and balked for a while at doing the report. It was only when we pushed that an officer was sent out to the woman's house to take the report.

A few days later when the woman went to SRPD to pick up a copy of the report at the records department she was refused a copy. Not only does state law mandate that police give domestic violence victims a full copy of the crime report (Family Code Section 6228), but, in addition, we had complained to the records department only a few months before about the department's repeated failure to comply with this law. In response to that complaint, the head of records wrote a memo to all staff to bring about compliance. Lack of knowledge about the law seems not likely to be the problem. Rather it seems instead that a willingness to defy the law and to defy victim's legal rights is what prevails.

When we called over to the records department regarding this most recent refusal, only then was the report made available to the victim. As for not taking the report in the first place, the only possible reason we can think of we can think of was that Santa Rosa Police didn't want to be bothered, and they didn't think the victim could find her way around.

If police had bothered to take the report they would have become immediately aware that the suspect had a long violent history, and had a number of current warrants out for his arrest

Case #4, Police Violence

deeply distraught Spanish-speaking single mother of three children walked into our office, her movements painful and slow from a fresh beating, her arm in a sling. Teresa told us that she had been beaten by a police officer the day before. We tried to explain that we didn't do those kinds of cases. But she was desperate and pleading.

Teresa told us she had come home from work the day before to find police in her backyard and her teenage son in handcuffs. She was told that police believed a friend of her son had stashed a stolen bicycle at her house. Teresa says she asked the officer in broken English if he had papers to be at her house. The officer asked her to wait outside the yard. Teresa asked the officer again if he had papers permitting him to be at her house. Again the officer didn't answer her question. Instead, the officer said, "You're under arrest". Teresa says she then asked the officer again if the officer had permission to be at her house. Teresa said that without any other provocation the officer grabbed her and pushed her back against a fence and an exercise machine. Then the officer reached over, pulled her back toward him and threw her against the fence and equipment again, this time kicking her as she landed against the fence. Then the officer again reached over, again pulled her back toward him, and again threw her against the fence and equipment. This time, Teresa says she fell to the ground, whereupon the officer bent down and grabbed her arm and twisted it until Teresa was in unbearable pain, at which point a female officer on the scene yelled, "Stop, stop", to the male officer.

According to Teresa, the male officer then picked her up, and handed her over to the female officer. The female officer then transported Teresa to the hospital where she was treated for injuries. At our office (the day after) we could see large multiple bruises and abrasions extending from Teresa's shoulders, all the way down her back and on her buttocks. There were cuts and contusions on her elbow and hands and one arm was in a sling.

Teresa emphatically did not want to make any kind of report to Santa Rosa Police. So we went to the DA's office. At the DA's office, a DA investigator argued with us for over an hour saying that Teresa had to go to Santa Rosa Police to make an administrative report. When it finally became clear that Teresa was not going to Santa Rosa Police and that we knew that the DA's office had the authority to take the criminal report, the investigator took a preliminary statement and took pictures of the injuries. However, the DA's office did not officially open a case.

It was only after two more weeks of dancing around that the DA's office arranged for the evidence to be sent to the State Attorney General's Office. As of the date of this writing, now more than a month later, though an AG prosecutor has been assigned to the situation, there is still no investigator assigned to the case, Teresa still has not given a formal statement, no date has been set to get her statement, and no case has been opened. At the time of this writing, we have been informed that SRPD Chief Dunbaugh is communicating with the AG's office in regard to this situation. Since the events of this case in no way involve the chief, we fear that the chief is interfering by attempting to forestall the AG's a criminal investigation of this case so as to give SRPD internal affairs time to do an administrative whitewash. The victim did not want to make an administrative complaint, nor any complaint to SRPD.

In this case, we ask that the Santa Rosa City Council immediately inform Chief Dunbaugh that he must not in any way attempt to forestall, obstruct, or influence the progress of the Attorney General's investigation, and in addition, we ask that you urge the California Attorney General's Office to proceed with their investigation.

In addition to our grave concerns about the allegations of police brutality in this case, we are also concerned that in reality there is no mechanism by which a citizen can make a criminal report against a police officer. Officially, the DA's office has the authority to take citizen's reports of criminal behavior by police officers. However, judging from our experience, there is no way an average citizen could get through the barrage of misinformation, resistence, and obstacles put in our way as the DA's office attempted to convince us that they couldn't take a report and that Teresa's only option was to file an administrative complaint with SRPD.

Unless we naively assume that police officers never engage in violent criminal behavior, it is urgent that Sonoma county secure a viable mechanism by which citizens can file timely criminal complaints when they are criminally wronged by officers.

Case #5, Not Even for Court Officials

he Sonoma County Family Court Mediator became concerned about a woman appearing at the courthouse on a domestic violence case seeking to have a Temporary Restraining Order made permanent. The Spanish- speaking woman had filed a declaration regarding the domestic violence she had experienced at the hands of her children's father. The mediator, in reviewing the status of any criminal proceedings resulting from the incident, could find no evidence that a police report had even been made. After speaking with the family law judge, the mediator was instructed to make a police report. She called SRPD from the judge's chambers to ask for an officer to be sent to the court to make the report.

The responding officer seemed to the mediator to be reluctant to get involved or take a report. The officer suggested to the mediator that some people just try to get the police involved to influence the outcome of a family law case. The mediator had to respond to the officer's concern that she, the mediator, was the attorney representing the woman in this case, which the mediator was not. After taking the report, the officer told the mediator that the woman was confused about the dates specific incidents took place. The mediator referred the case to Women's Justice Center because she was uncomfortable about whether the case was being taken seriously, and wanted to be sure the woman had the benefit of discussing the case with someone who spoke Spanish, which the mediator did not.

Case #6, In Contempt of Women

ancy, a mother of two young children called SRPD to report that a male roommate was threatening to have her beat up and threatening to kill her dog. The man had moved in a few months before and his abusiveness had escalated to the point where Nancy had her two children sleeping with her at night for fear of leaving them alone. Sandy, Nancy's other roommate, was also fearful of Jack. When Jack had moved in , the women didn't know that Jack had just gotten out of prison after serving time on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

The first time Nancy called police a few weeks before, police never arrived. The dispatcher had said officers were busy with a lot of violence. This second time calling the police, Nancy told the dispatcher that this time she needed a report taken. A half hour later when police hadn't arrived, Nancy called again.

When police finally arrived, Nancy says the officer encountered Jack out in front and talked outside with Jack for about ten minutes. Then the officer and Jack came in the house together. The officer proceeded to ask Nancy what was wrong with seemingly no sensitivity to the difficulty she might have speaking with Jack standing right there. Nancy told the officer anyway that Jack was threatening her and her dog. Nancy says Jack immediately began to yell accusations at her. Nancy says that from then on she could hardly get a word in edgewise.

In the midst of this, Nancy's other roommate, Sandy, walked into the room. Both women's accounts concur as to what happened next. They said the officer told them that we (police) don't take reports for threats. The officer told the women that unless someone's holding a weapon and coming at you there's no crime. The officer told the women it's not a crime to make threats in California and that he (Jack) can threaten you all he wants. The officer said this in the presence of Jack. According to the women, the officer didn't write any notes while there.

Both women, in separate conversations with us, described the officer's response as laughing at the women and their complaint. At one point Jack said, "You women make me sick", and the officer laughed.

Fortunately, after the officer left, the women had the presence of mind to call the parole board whose agents arrested Jack as soon as they heard the women's story.

Case #7, "Like I Was Calling About a Cat Up a Tree"

e received a call from a frantic English speaking woman who said she had called 911 early in the morning. The woman said she told the 911 operator that her husband would not relinquish the baby to her, that she was trying to leave the home, that she had full physical custody of the baby, and that her husband had just been convicted of two counts of domestic violence the day before, and that she wanted her baby.

The woman told us that the 911 operator told her that `since you live in the home, it's a squabble'. The woman asked the 911 operator what she recommended. The woman said the 911 operator told her that she `should go back and talk it out with him'.

The woman said to us that "the attitude of the 911 operator was like she (the operator) was on a coffee break and I was calling about a cat up a tree".

The woman told us that she had hidden the baby car seat and other baby things out in the back. And since the police wouldn't help she was afraid she was going to have to plan a way to steal the baby back herself.

We called Sgt. Schwedhelm who said he would contact the woman. After talking to the woman, Sgt. Schwedhelm then assigned two officers to get her baby back into her custody.

Please keep in mind that these are just some of the problem cases we have had with Santa Rosa Police in just the last four months. And that we have been receiving such complaints at the same rate for more than a year and a half. Though we have cases that have been handled very well by Santa Rosa Police, the solid majority of violence against women cases we have seen from this department in the last year and a half have been handled poorly.

As we said to Commander Swanson in a recent conversation, Santa Rosa Police used to set the standard in Sonoma County for handling crimes against women and children. Something very serious has gone awry. The overall department response to violence against women has deteriorated badly and dangerously. Most disturbingly, there seems to be no way to get the department to take the complaints seriously and make the urgently needed changes.

On one occasion, I accompanied a Spanish-speaking victim who wanted to make a formal complaint against the two SRPD officers who handled her domestic violence call. The sargeant we met with used me for a translator and after the woman was done telling her whole story, the sargeant said she would have to come back the next day so he could tape the complaint with a neutral translator.

Though both the victim and I felt this was a delaying tactic in hopes the victim wouldn't return, we both returned the next morning at the given time. This meeting which we had been made to believe was for the purpose of getting the women's taped complaint through a neutral translator, was instead an ambush. When we arrived, the officer against whom the woman was making the complaint was present at the meeting, and I was used as the translator. And every time the woman would begin to tell the story as she experienced it, the officer against whom she was making the complaint would pipe in and argue against her statement. When we attempted to give the sargeants present the name and phone number of a very credible bilingual witness who had heard and seen the entire incident in question, the sargeants would neither take, nor write down, any of the witness information.

I'm certain this woman, who is a highly successful business woman in Santa Rosa, would be more than willing to give you her first hand evaluation of the complaint process at Santa Rosa Police Department.

The dangers of this deterioration in police response are obvious. What is more difficult to convey is the profound and long term civic despair that results in individuals and throughout the community when people's life's emergencies are scoffed at by authorities. We need to start now to establish an independent check on police exercise of their authority in Santa Rosa.

We hope that this letter communicates to you the degree of our concern and frustration and the urgent need for you to act now on behalf of the entire Santa Rosa community. We look forward to working with you towards finding a solution.

Thank you for your attention.


Marie De Santis

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