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February 22, 2018
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Suspect wanted to be shot in City Center Plaza shooting

  • The plaza in front of the Rohnert Park Public Safety building was closed off from public access Monday following an officer shooting the night before.

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
January 19, 2018

Correction: An older version of this article stated that the latest officer involved shooting was one of seven, however, this was an incorrect figure. Of officer involved shootings, this is the fourth -- two more incidents, one in 2008 and 2017, were officer related fatal incidents involving a Taser. Three of the four officer involved shootings were fatal. Hence, there have been a total of five officer involved related fatal incidents.

The figure was compiled from an article on counterpunch. com, which compiled their figures from reports in the Sonoma County Free Press. The Rohnert Park figure was cross checked through archived articles that were written regarding each incident in news outlets such as SF Gate, The Press Democrat and the Sonoma County Free Press.

Late Sunday evening Rohnert Park Public Safety officers responded to a man firing shots outside the RP Public Safety station on City Center Drive, where the suspect was asking to be shot by police. Upon denying requests to drop his weapon an officer fired his weapon at the suspect, who was then transported to the hospital following the shooting. The incident is marked as the fourth officer involved shooting to have occurred in the department.

The incident took place around 10:40 p.m. in front of the main entrance to the building in the plaza, according to a RP Public Safety report released on Nixle. In response to the man’s desire of wanting to be shot, officers immediately called a crisis negotiator. While waiting for the negotiator to arrive on scene, officers continued to communicate with the man.

According to public safety, the suspect pleaded with officers several times to be killed, saying, “Kill me.” Officers communicated with the man for approximately one hour as the suspect started to advance towards officers. Officers tried to move away from the suspect to continue the conversation.

However, “The suspect began walking towards officers while disregarding all commands to drop his weapon. The officer ultimately fired his weapon at the suspect due to fearing for his life.”

As soon as shots were fired, the officer ran over to the suspect to administer first aid. An ambulance was then staged and transported the wounded suspect to the hospital.    

“He is expected to survive,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Spencer Crum. 

Following the incident, public safety issued a Nixle notification around 12:04 a.m. asking residents to avoid the area of Rohnert Park Expressway to Country Club Drive, State Farm and Professional Center Drive. The area near the City Center Plaza was sectioned off with bright yellow tape due to police activity.

For now, the name of both the officers involved and the suspect will not be released as the case is being investigated by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, consequently, authorities cannot comment on the incident any further. The investigation is carried out by the sheriff’s office pursuant to the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association Critical Incident Protocol.

Crum said that a typical investigation into an incident such as this starts with collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses.

“We interview all witnesses and parties involved. Officers will also review body cam footage and photograph the scene,” Crum said, who also mentioned these incidents are independently investigated to try and ensure transparency. “We try to make sure there is a spirit of transparency (in these investigations).” 

The shooting has been the fourth officer involved shooting for the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, three of which have been fatal incidents. Two other fatal officer involved incidents occurred in 2008 and 2017 involving tasers. Hence there have been a total of five officer involved related fatal incidents. The figures were compiled from an article on counterpunch. com, which compiled their figures from reports in the Sonoma County Free Press. The Rohnert Park figure was cross checked through archived articles that were written regarding each incident in news outlets such as SF Gate, The Press Democrat and the Sonoma County Free Press.

1997

One of the earliest officer involved shootings in the history of the agency occurred in 1997, when two RP officers, Jack Shields and Mike Lynch, responded to a call of a 33-year-old man waving a stick around in a “threating manner” in front of his Maria Place home, according to a 1997 SF Gate article. According to the article, the department had received around a dozen 911 calls regarding the man, Kuanchung Kao, who was a father of three.

The officers responded to the disturbance call and told Kao to drop the three to four-foot stick, however, he refused and allegedly began to advance towards the officers, whereupon Shields fired his weapon, striking Kao in the torso. Kao died shortly after. According to the investigation, Kao had been drinking that night and had been over the legal limit with a blood alcohol content level of 0.23 percent and Shields testified that Kao had charged him with the stick in a striking, “martial arts” like pose close to three feet from him. However, eyewitness testimonies contradicted Shields statements, saying they saw Kao come no closer than 10 feet. The Sonoma County District Attorney Michael Mullins eventually did not file criminal charges against Shields, saying in a lengthy report that Shields had acted in self-defense. 

In 1998, Kao’s widow, Ayling Wu, filed a lawsuit against RP Public Safety claiming wrongful use of deadly force. The suit was settled out of court in 2001 for $1 million.

2000

In May of 2000, Robert Francisco Camacho, 35, died after being shot five times at his trailer by RP Public Safety following an armed battle when they had responded to the mental health crisis call. According to data compiled in an article by reporters on counterpunch.com, “His wife had recently sought mental health treatment for her husband, but was told he could not be involuntarily committed unless he was a danger to himself or others.”

2005

Another officer related fatal incident occurred when 30-year-old Terry Lee Grinner Jr. was stopped at a routine traffic stop by RP officers. He was shot twice in the back by the officer when he tried to flee the traffic stop. It is unclear whether or not he was armed.

2008

In March of 2008, RP Office Robert Lankford was responding to a mental health crisis call and shot 31-year-old Heather Kathleen Billings. Billings had been under the influence of prescription drugs and alcohol, and was holding a razor when Lankford responded to the call. A year later, the Sonoma County District Attorney cleared Lankford of wrongdoing and did not file any criminal charges.

Yet another officer involved fatal incident occurred later that year in November, when Guy James Fernandez, 42, was tased to death by officers. According to the county sheriff’s office Fernandez may have been under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the incident. Fernandez had been suspected of shoplifting and assault at a local Walmart, according to the Press Democrat.

According to the article, following the struggle with the four officers, “Officers later noticed that Fernandez was short of breath and unresponsive and called for medical assistance. Paramedics were unable to revive him.” The four officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing by the district attorney’s office.

2017

This most recent case is still under investigation by the district attorney’s office and involves the case of a Forestville man who died following a physical struggle with RP officers at the Budget Inn on Redwood Drive. 

On May 12, a security guard at the hotel called police reporting that the man was acting “paranoid and strange,” according to a press release on the incident released by public safety. The two responding officers, David Sittig-Wattson and Sean Huot approached the man, 41-year-old Branch Wroth, who told the officers he had been poisoned. Wroth appeared to be under the influence of drugs and was unable to voice to officers how he was poisoned. The officers then determined there was a warrant out for his arrest.

According to the press release, “The Rohnert Park officers attempted to talk him into handcuffs using a calm tone to de-escalate the situation.” However, Wroth attempted to leave the hotel room through the window and officers has to physically restrain him when a physical confrontation ensued. Roth was then tased six times in order to subdue him into handcuffs. It was then that Roth became unresponsive. According to body cam footage, officers immediately attempted to revive the man and began CPR, yet despite the effort, Wroth died on scene.

The Voice attempted to obtain a copy of the police report of the incident, however, the request was denied as the investigation is still ongoing. Additionally, RP Department of Public Safety Commander Aaron Johnson said no comments could be made on the case

In an independent pathologist report that was released in December, it was determined that Roth’s cause of death was cardiac arrest, “Immediately after a struggle with law enforcement while under the influence of methamphetamine,” the report states. 

Five officer involved fatal incidents spanning over two decades seems like a fair amount for a fairly small town of around 40, 971 people compared to Petaluma, a town of similar size, which only has had four notable incidents.

Crum said the sheriff’s office typically only sees one officer involved shooting per year. “For us it’s about one a year or so,” Crum said

David Sklansky, a professor at Stanford University who teachers criminal law and procedure and is the co-director for the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, says there has been a growing concern regarding police shootings these past few years and that the United States in general sees much more violence and police shootings versus Europe.

“I think there is a growing amount of attention that is being placed on the high rates (of shootings) on police officers in the United States. More people are assessing the cause of high rates and it’s complicated because the United States has more lethal violence generally than there is in other countries,” Sklansky said. “Some of the high rates of officer involved shootings have something to do with the fact that we are just a more violent society.”

When asked how investigations into officer involved shootings could be improved, Sklansky pointed towards four different aspects that were determined by a Stanford Criminal Justice Center investigation into improving investigations.

“Our conclusions were, is that it’s important to build in objectivity and impartiality. It’s also important that the agency avoid the officer who shot his or her weapon, that agency should be involved as little as possible in the investigation. Two, we think that to the extent possible, the prosecutors who are making the initial determination whether or not to file charges is that it’s better that they are not a part of the local district attorney’s office. Our view is that in general it would be better for the state attorney’s general office to investigate the situation, or to have a neighboring county district attorney’s office investigate,” Sklansky explained.