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Letters to Authorities

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SRPD: More Remedies Needed,
Sept.13, 2001

September 13, 2001

Chief Michael Dunbaugh, Santa Rosa Police
and Santa Rosa City Council Members
Santa Rosa, CA

Chief Michael Dunbaugh and Santa Rosa City Council Members,

We received Chief Dunbaugh's September 5 letter outlining the department's proposed remedies for preventing future mishandling of domestic violence calls. We also received the enclosed outline of the planned four hour domestic violence training for officers, and a September 11 letter re SRPD's proposed establishment of a victim services entity.

We appreciate the department's extensive work in developing these remedies; the work group meetings on officer use of the Language Line, the work group developing the victim survey form, and the detail of the training outline. We also appreciate the open communication throughout the yearlong process.

At the same time, though the proposed remedies should be effective for improving some areas of the problem, there are other very critical areas of the problems we feel haven 't been adequately addressed. We outline them below.

In addition, we want to emphasize that the only real measure of success will be an end to the flow of serious complaints about the department's handling of violence against women and children. Despite more than two years of bringing scores of these complaints to the attention of the department, we have had more complaints of serious police misconduct in the last six months than we did in the same time period last year. The situation remains urgent and alarming. The overwhelming majority of violence against women cases we see involving SRPD continue to be mishandled by the department, endangering the victims and community, and violating the victims' fundamental constitutional rights to equal protection of the laws.

The gaps we see in the proposed remedies are as follows:

1. There should be an immediate Santa Rosa Police Department general order put in place mandating that in all rape, domestic violence, and child abuse cases involving non English-speaking parties, when no fully bilingual officer is available to handle the call responding officer(s) must use the Language Line for interviewing the principle parties.

In early June we received a call from a very frightened monolingual Spanish-speaking victim, a mother of five children all under the age of 7. She told us that her husband had not allowed her to leave her home for months, that he often left her and the children without food or money, and that he had her convinced that she had no rights. She said she was living like a prisoner in her home. When we asked if she had ever called police, she told me that she had called 911 about three weeks before and that the four SRPD officers that came to her home didn't speak Spanish, couldn't communicate with her, couldn't understand her, and never even hinted at providing an interpreter. She said the officers only spoke with her husband, who spoke English. She said they laughed with her husband, and then they left. The officers didn't write a report. When they left, she said she lost her will to struggle.

This woman's statement about the effect of that encounter with SRPD is attached.

Although Chief Dunbaugh has recently validated the complaint to the victim, the point we wish to make here is that there are a number of things about this case which indicate great urgency for a general order immediately mandating officer use of the Language Line. The fact that this case occurs after two years of bringing such cases to your attention, after two years of promises that it doesn't and won't happen, and after memos to officers, work group meetings, and officer surveys devoted to this same problem, these things all point alarmingly to the need for an immediate order. In addition, the fact that this case involved four officers, and not one of the four officers offered to call the Language Line further underscores the need.

In addition, during the September 12 meeting devoted to finalizing the development of a victim quality control interview, Sgt. Schwedhelm head of the sex crimes/domestic violence unit was asked how these interviews were going to be carried out with Spanish-speaking victims. Sgt. Schwedlelm replied, "We're going to pass over them for now," explaining that it was too difficult to arrange. And despite the fact that our representative, Stephanie Serra, and a representative of United Against Sexual Assault continued to press Schwedhelm on the unacceptability of `passing over' Spanish-speaking victims, Schwedhelm continued to argue adamantly that there were no resources available to interview Spanish-speaking victims, apparently completely unaware of the gross display of blatant discrimination and insensitivity he was manifesting. YWCA advocate Nadine Reyes argued just as vigorously to exclude Spanish-speaking victims and together they sealed the decision for exclusion.

Given that the primary complaint we have brought to you for more than two years has been SRPD disregard of Spanish-speaking victims, Schwedhelm's grating insensitivity is by itself alarm enough to issue an immediate general order. The widespread and seemingly impenetrable oblivion of so many in the department to issues of racism, sexism, and their constitutional obligations to provide equal protection means that the only way to assure proper police conduct is to mandate it.

Just as disturbing is the fact that four officers who responded to the above mentioned case, sworn to serve and protect, could walk out of that house where there were five children under the age of seven, relying completely on the story of the husband, knowing that the woman had called 911 for help with her husband who was furious, and having looked at a restraining order (expired) that the woman had previously obtained against the husband. This indicates not only a need for an immediate general order mandating use of the Language Line, it also indicates a need to remedy a much more deeply rooted problem. The problem is the officers didn't care enough to find out why the woman wanted help nor care enough about what might happen to her and her five very young children when they turned their backs and left. Nor did they bother to write a report as required by law.

2. The remedies outlined in the Chief's letter do not address, or only tangentially address, what the scores of cases show to be a pervasive and ongoing bias, contempt, and could-care-less attitude shown by way too many SRPD officers against women, against Latinas, and against victims of violence against women. The proposed domestic violence training should be very beneficial for those officers who respect their duty to treat people equally and with respect, but procedural training will have little effect on those officers and staff who feel free to abuse and endanger the victims out of spite or disregard as has been the problem in scores of cases we've brought you, and as can be seen in the case above and the more recent one that follows.

In early July a domestic violence victim called 911 after the abuser had made a threat to her friend that he was going to get a shot gun for the victim and her son. This incident occurred in the wake of SRPD having bungled two previous incidents in the couple weeks before, one in which the same perpetrator had strangled the victim and the other in which the perpetrator had violated an emergency restraining order. By the time of this new threats incident we had already lodged complaints to ranking officials of the department on the very poor handling of the earlier incidents; the failure to take witness statements in the first, and the failure to write a report and make a mandated arrest in the second.

Officer Lefwich responded to the threats call. The victim asked the officer to take a report and Officer Lefwich immediately began telling the victim he wasn't going to do that. Soon two other adults arrived who confirmed what happened next. Keep in mind that it's been more than a decade now that under California law (PC 13730) officers must write a report on all domestic violence related incidents.

According to the victim and the two witnesses,

  • As the victim repeatedly begged Officer Lefwich to write a report, Lefwich kept telling the victim for a good ten minutes that he wasn't going to write a report giving all manner of excuses, "There's no crime here," "What's the point, nobody's going to read the report anyway," "There's a lot of paperwork involved,""You want me to write a report just to appease you?"....When the victim begged him, "Can't you write just some kind of report, a note, or just something written," Leftwich said he had "too many other things to do."
  • The victim, who has been living in fear of this perpetrator (who by the way is wanted in the state of Washington for having skipped out on his sentencing for sex crimes) and living with frustration over police bungling, began crying. She put her head down, gave up, and finally told Leftwich to `forget it'. According to the victim and witnesses, that's when Leftwich began taunting her. He reached for her arm and said repeatedly, "Look at me, you need to look at me and listen to me." Lefwich continued haranguing the victim about how she needed to understand the law, and how things worked, and how he wasn't going to write a report.
  • According to all, Lefwich was sarcastic, condescending, and harassing the victim. One of the witnesses said, "I was amazed. It made me sick."

A day or two later when the victim reported this to us, I suggested she go to the police station to see if a police report had been written, and to get a copy of the report if there was one. (Domestic Violence victims have a statutory right to a copy of the report, (Family Code 6228), a law over which we have wrangled thoroughly and repeatedly with SRPD since the law's passage two years ago.)

A couple hours after the victim's call to us, she came into our office visibly shaking and on the verge of tears. She said that the SRPD staff person argued with her about getting the report. When the victim insisted she had a right to the report, the staff person went in back for a few minutes, returned, and handed the victim a copy of the report which the staff person had maliciously blacked out with a marker pen from beginning to end. A copy of that report as handed to the victim is attached.

This report, though certainly not the most egregious misconduct we see, is a clear and visible manifestation of the unchecked hostility and mean spiritedness that victims of rape and domestic violence have been encountering for years when they go to Santa Rosa Police for help. Imagine what that must feel like! Understand that this is not corrected by training!

As the victim has said to us repeatedly, "If I treated people on my job the way Santa Rosa Police treat people, I would be fired on the spot." We wholeheartedly agree that firing, and not training, is the only remedy for these kinds of abusiveness to victims.

3. There is still no effective means, nor any plan for creating an effective means, by which the average resident of Santa Rosa can lodge a complaint against their police department and have that complaint be investigated fairly. We already demonstrated to you in our January 1 letter how police dodge, deceive, defend, and dissimulate when responding to victim complaints, and this even when the complaint is brought by an agency experienced with these cases. There have only been a handful of the scores of cases in which we feel the department gave more energy to honest investigating than they gave to defensive and deceptive spin.

The average citizen making a complaint does not know the intricacies of the law and policy, does not know how to investigate, prepare evidence, take witness statements, scour the public documents, and compile effective reports on their own complaint, and then combat the inevitable police denials and deceptions. The average unassisted citizen doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting their complaint heard and investigated fairly.

And even though we are very experienced in these things, we are now more than two years and over thirty serious complaints into this process with SRPD, and victims of very serious violent crimes are still being mistreated by police. The problem still isn't anywhere near resolved.

Just the task of getting this situation taken seriously in the first place has strained our organization to the maximum for over two years. On any one of these cases, we generally have to investigate that complaint ourselves, gather the documents, do the interviews, get witness statements, write up the complaint, repair the immense damage done to an already severely traumatized victim, make herculean efforts to secure her safety because police have failed to do so, dog the police to redo the case, organize one form or another of public visibility, and then rebut the inevitable wall of defenses. And we haven't even brought you a fraction of the problem cases. We can't begin to keep up with the proper recording of these abuses.

You are certainly fully aware that there is no way an average person in Santa Rosa can get through this process and come out with a just resolution to their complaint You need to also understand that this is why things get so extremely bad with police in the first place. Police cover up complaints, things grow worse, and police cover up more complaints. And pretty soon you've got the situation you've got now. As we've said from the very beginning, you must provide an independent mechanism for handling citizen complaints against police.

4. The SRPD has wrongly dropped rape and other sex crimes from the agenda. Police repeatedly refused to keep sex crimes in the discussions despite our objections and despite the fact that mishandling of sex crimes has been an integral part of our complaints. Imagine the degree of difficulties victims encounter when reporting sex crimes to police. The sad part is that rape victims so despair of obtaining justice that only one out of six rape victims even bother to report to police in the first place.

5. Victim Services must be completely independent of police control. Today we received Chief Dunbaugh's outline of the department's proposal to set up a victim services unit. This is the first we have heard of this plan and we strongly object to this both in general and in it's particulars.

A proper law enforcement response is the most important factor in freeing a woman from violence, in obtaining her safety, and for opening her path to justice. No other segment of society has the authority or power to put the perpetrator under control. You can social work these cases to death, but without proper law enforcement response most victims will be condemned to remain trapped in the violence.

At the same time, law enforcement culture is ill-suited and ill-recruited for the task. Most officers don't like handling these cases, don't want to do these cases, and victims have no legal means to hold law enforcement responsible when police don't do these cases. It's a police culture that hasn't even learned to work on a par with women, let alone to act on women's behalf. At least 12 female officers in the last three years have left the department, a department that has only around 15 female officers at any time out of over 160 officers, and has never had a female of rank.

At this point in time, vigorous advocacy by victim advocates is the only remedy victims have for helping her get proper law enforcement protection. That police are being given more and more control over victim services is an obvious mockery. It is a profound conflict of interest, and thoroughly sabotages the ability of advocates to fight for victims' rights in the criminal justice system.

In Sonoma County, police chiefs have had veto power over victims services' government grants for years, and they have in fact used this veto power repressively to crush effective victim advocacy in Sonoma County. The effect has been plain to see. So called victim advocates have evolved into a doctor-nurse relationship with police. Making matters worse, advocates in the last few years now have their offices inside the police department. And now we're going to have chief Dunbaugh put together a victim services unit?

There are millions of dollars of government funds flowing into victim services in Sonoma County. But those who receive them are contractually under control of police. You must know that you would never have known about these dangerous deterioration's in SRPD response to women and children if it were not for the fact that we are completely independent of police control. And the corrections now being planned would not have come about. At the very least, the council must act to keep victim services out of the chief's control.

Thank you for your attention.


Marie De Santis Stephanie Serra
Director Victim Advocate

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