Systemic Sadism at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office

Systemic Sadism at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office

Systemic Sadism at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office

As the trial begins today of one officer accused of beating a man to death for the “crime” of driving his own car, a new PBS documentary flips the script on a department lionized by Cops.


There are desultory days when it seems the only reform to come out of the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests is that we’re now capitalizing “Black” again. While there’s been some good news around redeploying police resources to mental health services, Congress has punted on police reform, “defund the police” has backfired as a rallying cry, lawmakers are smashing and grabbing their way to a tough-on-crime force posture, and the popular and polarizing reality show Cops—after a BLM-driven cancellation by Paramount last year—is back on the air on Fox.

Police reform advocates have for decades called out Cops for its good-apples emphasis on police transparency, often at the expense of the citizens they are charged to serve. The show emphasizes the hard work of policing, but never shows the rotten officers who wreck the barrel for the rest of their colleagues. You’ll never see a police encounter of the George Floyd variety on Cops. The program, says documentarian and former Sacramento County Deputy district attorney Ron Rogers, promulgates an us-versus-them view of policing, glorifies police violence, and often makes a mockery of the very communities that law enforcement agencies are supposed to be protecting. “Cops is a complete step backwards,” says Rogers.

Rogers has produced a counter-narrative to the happy-pants Cops motif called 3 Seconds in October, which is set to be released to a national audience on PBS on January 22. His film flips the script on the Cops narrative as it unflinchingly portrays a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office that has some chronic and ongoing problems with constitutional policing. The core of the film is focused on the 2013 killing of Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, a 13-year-old who was shot eight times, and killed, by now-retired sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus. The boy was carrying a toy gun when he was killed and Gelhaus was cleared of any criminal charges in the incident.

When Cops came to Sonoma County in 2018 to roll with the Wine Country deputies, SCSO’s executive leadership, including Mark Essick, who became sheriff in November 2018, touted it as a vehicle to get the good stories about the North Bay troopers into the public arena, amid a climate of intense and ongoing distrust of the SCSO that predated the Lopez killing and has only gotten worse in the ensuing years. Essick, who is not running for reelection next year, headed up an agency that, even after the Lopez killing, provided a steady grind of video violence and bad-actor cops in the news that suggests a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing in the streets and in the Sonoma County lockup.

Rogers’s film highlights that the county has paid out more than $10 million in excessive-force and wrongful-death lawsuits over the past decade, including a $3 million settlement with the Lopez family, five years after the fact. 3 Seconds in October aired locally on Bay Area PBS stations this fall, and Rogers says the film has already had a salutary impact insofar as swaying hard-line law enforcement cheerleaders who really can’t look away from some of the horrific and graphic goings-on at the SCSO and in the jail as depicted in his film. “The public is starting to tune in,” says Rogers.

Essick has himself been in the national news of late over a dust-up concerning his handpicked would-be successor as sheriff, who is Black. Essick’s endorsement of the officer was met with a charge that he was basically engaging in first-degree tokenism, with the temperamental Essick shooting back that the criticism was “racist.” That’s an interesting tale in itself given Sonoma County’s minuscule Black population—especially compared with its large and active Latino population. Among other things, the Lopez shooting prompted a years-long effort to grapple with what Latinos in the community have long described as inequitable treatment in their communities. In his film, Rogers provides video detail that doesn’t discount the systemic racism in the SCSO—but also reinforces the view that the force has a problem with equal-opportunity systemic sadism in its ranks.

Rogers reports on how, until recently, SCSO corrections guards routinely engaged in “yard counseling”—in which a bunch of heavily armored cops would beat the hell out of inmates of all races for alleged rules violations. This cruel and unusual practice cost Sonoma County $1.7 million after a lawsuit brought by attorney Izaak Schwaiger forced the SCSO to produce the grotesquely savage video evidence. Rogers also includes video from a 2013 incident at the jail where a white man who was arrested on DUI charges was Tasered 23 times. His screams are absolutely bone-chilling. That one cost the county $1.25 million following another civil-rights lawsuit brought by Schwaiger.

And then there’s the death of David Ward, who was allegedly killed on camera by former deputy Charles Blount after a slow-speed chase in rural Sonoma County in 2019 that ended only after Blount repeatedly smashed Ward’s head into the car. Ward died on the scene. Ward’s “crime” was driving in a car that he had reported as stolen (it was his car). Blount’s body camera was reportedly not on during the encounter, but another SCSO deputy captured the whole gruesome ordeal, which amounted to the extrajudicial execution of a man whose only crime was driving in his own car. That incident cost the county $3.8 million. Thanks in no small part to the damning video, Blount was brought up on manslaughter charges. His trial is set to begin today, December 10.

The Lopez killing prompted months of protest in Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa and led to a years-long effort to bring some accountability to bear at the SCSO. It appears that they still have some work to do, given the post-Lopez parade of savagery and torture. In response to public outrage over the Lopez killing, the county set up a new entity called the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review—at which point SCSO brass, including Essick, promptly set out to attack the credibility and motives of the person hired to run the office, an attorney named Jerry Threet. Gelhaus, meanwhile, was promoted after he shot and killed the 13-year-old—and was subsequently tasked with being the swing-shift point-person for the Cops producers when they showed up in Sonoma County—as if to rub the community’s face in it. The Sonoma Cops episodes aired starting in February 2019.

For his part, Gelhaus avoided criminal charges in the Lopez shooting—thanks to a corrupt investigation conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department, which claimed that Gelhaus and his partner that day were actually victims of Lopez’s crime, which was “brandishing” a weapon. After a disastrous and years-long effort to clear Gelhaus of any civil liability for his actions in federal court—a lead Gelhaus defense lawyer killed himself during the proceedings—the county eventually paid off the Lopez family and said it was time to move on.

Rogers’s film, with a voiceover by Peter Coyote, is an essential if highly disturbing 28 minutes of rage-inducing police misconduct that richly deserves a national audience, and readers are encouraged to contact their local PBS affiliate to lobby them for an airing in their communities. I’ll leave it to the film to spell out the corruption and mendacity at the heart of the Gelhaus investigation, but, as Rogers notes, the tactics undertaken by the SCSO, the Santa Rosa Police Department, and Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch are in play in police agencies around the country, where some 1,000 citizens are shot and killed by police every year, with very little in the way of accountability.

The sheriff at the time of the Lopez shooting was a man named Steve Freitas, who has since retired. Freitas raised some reportorial eyebrows in Sonoma County when he visited with then-incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017, along with a handful of other sheriffs from around the country. The meeting was ostensibly to talk about enforcing federal immigration law at local police agencies, but Sessions, as Trump’s AG, worked to unwind some of the aggressive policing-of-the-police activities undertaken when Eric Holder was attorney general under Barack Obama. Sessions would go on to declare that he was severely limiting, if not outright ending, the pursuit of federal consent decrees, a powerful tool utilized by the Justice Department when it determined that a police agency had engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory or unconstitutional policing.

Attorney General Merrick Garland should invite Mark Essick or the next sheriff of Sonoma County to a similar meeting but with a more aggressive agenda than greeted Freitas. Garland would be well-advised to view 3 Seconds in October in advance of the meeting. If nothing else, the film makes the case that it is high time the DOJ took a hard look at the history of systemic sadism at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office.

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