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Law Enforcement Related Deaths in Sonoma County
by Peter Phillips
Saturday Dec 6th, 2014 2:01 PM
Newspaper accounts report over 1,500 people die annually in the US in law enforcement related deaths. These are all deaths in the presence of law enforcement personnel both on the street and in local jails. It is reasonable to assume that some portion of these deaths is attributable to officer mistakes, over- reactions, or deliberate acts resulting in death.
Law Enforcement Related Deaths in Sonoma County — “Justified Homicides” and Their Impacts on Victims’ Families

According to newspaper accounts over 1,500 people die annually in the US in law enforcement related deaths. These are all deaths in the presence of law enforcement personnel both on the street and in local jails. Infamous cases such as Andy Lopez, Oscar Grant, and Michael Brown are only the tip of the iceberg. Many hundreds more are killed annually and these deaths by police are almost always ruled justified, even when victims are unarmed or shot in the back running away.

In addition to the people dying on the street or in their homes through law enforcement related activities, research shows that several hundred people a year die in local jails. In 2011, according to the Office of Justice Programs, 885 inmates died in the custody of local jails. Thirty-nine percent died within the first week of being jailed. This number combined with deaths on the outside shows that in excess of 1,500 people die annually in law enforcement related circumstances both in custody or in the process of enforcement in the community.

It is reasonable to assume that some portion of these deaths is attributable to officer mistakes, over- reactions, or deliberate acts resulting in death. But almost always, despite obvious questionable behavior by law enforcement personnel, no charges are filed. Police investigations of law enforcement related death, either internally within departments or by outside police agencies, nearly always rule homicides are justified and followed departmental procedures.

Following is a brief outline of the key facts as reported by family members for six cases in Sonoma County over the past 15 years. All the family members interviewed strongly believe that police overreacted and their loved one should not have been killed under the circumstances.

Case #1. Black Male, Age 30, Rohnert Park, prior drug use, shot in back running from police after car chase, no record of mental illness, no weapons present,

Interviewee #1, “he was running from the police…they shot him in the back…murdered by the police.”

Case #2. Black male, Age 30, Rohnert Park, self-employed rapper, prior arrests for marijuana and passing counterfeit money, no recorded mental illness, ran from police after traffic stop, shot in back, no weapons present.

Interviewee # 2, “He ran (from the car after a stop) and was shot immediately in the back. And then he was dead. He and the officer that shot him …had gone to school together and played basketball together.”

Case #3. White male, Age 39, Petaluma, prior depression and minor drug use, not taking his medications, traumatic episode called 911 himself, rampaging in his parents home, tasered by police three times and dies, no weapons present.

Interviewee #3. “The police…are supposed to protect you and take care of you, and we were following the rules.”

Case #4. Black male, Age 16, 127 lbs, Sebastopol, no prior criminal record, depressed, traumatic episode in van parked in family driveway with small carving knife, pepper sprayed and shot six times by county sheriff, financial settlement to family from civil trial.

Interviewee #4, “The officer was highly reactive and he didn’t assess the situation, he immediately jumped into plan of action and that escalated the situation rather then contain it. Both officers said they feared for their life, yet these officers were both more than twice the weight of my 127 lb son.”

Case #5. White male, Age 24, Santa Rosa, mentally ill ward of the state, schizophrenic, in and out of care facilities since age 14, stopped taking medication and had psychotic incident in his home shard by three men, picked up small kitchen knife and is tasered and then shot by police four times, small financial settlement from civil suit.

Interviewee #5, “There are probably a great many combat veterans in the police…you have been taught to kill, They could have stepped back The first thing they could have done is not make him come out of his room. Anyone who knows anything about mental patients who are off their meds—just get them somewhere quiet and alone.”

Case #6, White-Korean male, Age 30, Santa Rosa, Mental Illness Bipolar and PTSD, fired gun afraid of intruders in his attic, taken by police outside, runs at officers shot, no weapon in possession at time of shooting.

Interviewee # 6, “They kept shouting orders at him, I believe there were six officers, they approached in formation all of them with their guns aimed at him and to someone in this mental state it was extremely threatening way to approach him. (They had him on the ground) and kept shouting confusing orders to him, turn your head to the right, turn your head to the left, then he jumped up…and they shot him a rifle in the chest, right in the heart. None of this would have happen, all they had to do was say we are here to help, we understand you are hearing intruders, do you mind if we take a look?”

Most all of the families complained that the police lied to them after the death of their family member and the media backed up the police. In most cases, immediate family members are isolated from each other, and taken to the police station. Questioning by police was designed to build a negative case against the deceased.

Certainly, the sudden death of a loved one is a very traumatic event for anyone. However, adding in isolation, interrogations, and lies will undoubtedly magnify the trauma. These families carry a deep-seated anger towards the police, not only for killing their loved ones but also for what they see as gross mistreatment by authorities after the event.

With some 1,500 people dying annually, a major continuing problem with law enforcement related death exists in the US. The national move to militarized police with homeland security oversight is certainly not reducing this death rate. Long-term racism continues to show abuses affecting people of color to greater degrees than whites. A comprehensive review of police training is needed to give greater emphasis to the use of non-lethal interventions, and non-aggressive behaviors especially in mental health cases. Mental health/social service support for families of victims of law enforcement related deaths is an important social justice need for people already suffering serious trauma.

Peter Phillips is a Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, and President of Media Freedom Foundation/Project Censored

The full version of this study with listed co-authors Diana Grant and Greg Sewell is published in Censored 2015, Inspiring We the People, Edited by Andy Roth and Mickey Huff, Seven Stories Press, 2014. An on-line version is available at: http://www.projectcensored.org/law-enforcement-related-deaths-us/

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