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Jury: Police violated civil rights in 2007 shooting of unarmed Santa Rosa man

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A federal jury in San Francisco on Thursday found that a Santa Rosa police sergeant violated the civil rights of an unarmed man when he shot him to death outside the man’s home in 2007.

The eight-member jury concluded that the shooting of Richard DeSantis did not have a “legitimate law enforcement purpose” and awarded his family more than $500,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees.

“The jury found that the officer violated the constitutional right of an unarmed mental patient,” said family attorney Eric Safire. “This is big stuff.”

Richard DeSantis.

The verdict was a blow to city officials, who fully backed the actions of all six officers who responded to the 911 call and spent nearly five years trying to get the lawsuit thrown out.

Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, who attended the two-week trial, said the shooting was a “tragic situation” but stood by his officers’ conduct.

“I am disappointed with the jury’s verdict and continue to believe all department personnel in this matter acted appropriately,” Schwedhelm said in a statement.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler, who served as lead attorney in the case, said she believed the jury’s decision was “not supported by the evidence” and will ask the judge for a new trial.

DeSantis, a disabled ironworker, had gone off his medication for bipolar disorder in preparation for returning to work the Monday after Easter, 2007.

Around 1 p.m., he said he heard noises in the attic and began shooting a Glock semiautomatic pistol into the ceiling of his South Avenue home in Roseland in what his wife has called a manic episode. Patricia DeSantis called 911 for help.

When officers arrived, DeSantis was not wearing a shirt, had nothing in his hands, and initially complied with orders to get on the ground, Safire said. Patricia DeSantis testified that she told officers she had recovered the gun.

Officers never got the chance to pat him down to confirm that he didn’t have a weapon because he jumped up suddenly and charged at them, according to police accounts. One officer fired a nonlethal projectile at DeSantis, striking him in the arm.

Testimony differed about the effect of the rubber bullet, but Sgt. Richard Celli said it didn’t stop DeSantis.

“There was a slight delay and then he continued his charge toward the officers,” Schwedhelm said.

Celli then fired his assault rifle, striking DeSantis once in the chest. Officers Travis Menke and Patricia Mann also fired their pistols immediately afterward, striking DeSantis as least once.

Menke and Mann were dropped from the family’s lawsuit after it became clear at trial that it was the shot from Celli that killed DeSantis, Safire said.

Testimony varied among the officers about whether they feared for their lives, with some officers testifying that they were surprised when Celli fired because they expected additional rubber bullets to be fired or the dog released before deadly force was used, Safire said.

“No police officer saw anything that looked like a weapon,” Safire said. “No police officer lost sight of (DeSantis’) hands for a second.”

While Patricia DeSantis testified she told officers her husband was no longer armed, the officers could not be sure he didn’t have a gun in his waistband, Schwedhelm said.

“We didn’t know he was unarmed,” Schwedhelm said.

Police later found three guns in the home.

The fact that officers had “six different perspectives of the same incident” is natural and shouldn’t be used to call into question Celli’s belief that his life was in danger, Schwedhelm said.

Fowler said officers need to independently make the decision to use deadly force when they have a reasonable fear their lives are at risk.

“To require one officer to speculate about what action another officer is going to take is an impossible standard to hold law enforcement officers to,” she said.

But Safire said there are numerous other ways officers could have resolved the situation. They could have released the dog. They could have fired another rubber bullet, used their pepper spray or Tasers or simply wrestled him to the ground, he said.

“If we have to admit that six police officers, fully equipped with Tasers and batons and a dog can’t subdue a visibly unarmed mental patient, then we’ve got a serious problem, and the jury agreed,” Safire said.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office under Stephan Passalacqua found in May of 2008 that the officers’ actions were justified.

Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey White previously dismissed several parts of the lawsuit, including removing the city from the case, Fowler said. Celli was held personally liable by the jury, but the city will pay any judgment upheld by the courts, Fowler said.

The jury of seven men and one woman awarded DeSantis’ widow, Patricia, and their daughter, Dani, $343,000 in economic damages. They also awarded noneconomic damages in the amounts of $127,000 for Dani DeSantis, $35,957 for Richard DeSantis’ mother Adrienne DeSantis, and $5,375 for Patricia DeSantis.

The city is self-insured up to $500,000 and has an insurance policy for awards over that amount, Fowler said. She said she didn’t know how much the city had spent in legal expenses on the case to date.

Safire declined to estimate the amount of attorney fees and costs he plans to ask the court for, but said it will amount to “thousands of hours” of time.

The DeSantis shooting was one of a spate of incidents in 2007 and 2008 involving Sonoma County law enforcement officers killing people in mental distress, including a teenager and a mother. Passalacqua cleared all officers of wrongdoing.

The family of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old Analy High School student who was shot seven times by sheriff’s deputies after efforts to subdue him in his parents’ minivan failed, settled their lawsuit with the county for $1.75 million.

In another case, 24-year-old mental health client Jesse Hamilton was shot by a Santa Rosa officer after failing to drop a butcher knife while approaching officers. The city was dropped from a federal lawsuit after it convinced a judge officers did not use excessive force.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.





21 Responses to “Jury: Police violated civil rights in 2007 shooting of unarmed Santa Rosa man”

  1. Reality Check says:

    Pete, you are absolute right about one thing. In an earlier age this wouldn’t have happened. The billy club would have come out at the first sign of violent resistance. No more. That’s police brutality. So police wait longer than they used to, the situation escalates, the guy charges, and shots are fired.

    We’ve taken away the rough but non-lethal means police used to employ to subdue uncooperative suspects. And now we want to take away the only thing left. Pretty soon, if it hasn’t already happened, police will just look the other way or find a less dangerous street to patrol.

    The tragedy of course is that most victims of crime are the poor and minorities. Yet, the lingo here is that the police are the enemy.

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  2. pete says:

    Reality Check says: With the benefit of hindsight so many things would be done different.

    We expect much of police. Apparently, we also expect them to put their lives at considerable risk in encounters with aggressive and violent people.

    Hindsight, I doubt this is the first time something like this has happened, you dont need hindsight, you need training. I’m sure these guys get a lot of training.

    Are you saying that you don’t expect them to deal with aggressive and violent people, that is why they are cops. I doubt most of them got into the job to write reports and do DUI checkpoints, they wanted to deal with people like this.
    My family has quite a few police officers and the old retired guys, always say that if I guy like that came at a group of them back in the day, he would almost never had been shot, he would have ended up in the hospital for a week but not dead, six guys, dog, tasers, gas, there was a way better solution, the officer that shot first, should never get out from behind a desk again.

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  3. Snarky says:

    Reality Check:

    YouTube videos mean a LOT more than your cherished police “reports” :)

    Everyone knows what goes into a police “report” is nothing but the biased version of events as seen by the cop writing that report.

    And, that bias does not even include the lies that are commonly written into those “reports.” Just look at the current case in Sacramento, CA, where an officer has been arrested for doctoring police “reports” on dozens of drivers that he accused of driving under the influence.

    As for Rodney King, whether he was driving under the influence or not matters little. The kicking and clubbing by a half dozen cops was not lawful and that is why those cops were fired.

    I might add, there was an interesting article in the media recently about those fired cops. Wouldn’t you know… they had a hard time finding employment after that because those evil videos that you refuse to believe … do hold more truth that their “reports.”

    I was amused that one of those cops was even last known to be working a minimum wage “security” job.

    In fact, two or three of those criminal cops were reported to actually have fled the state for the Mid West. No use in staying in CA once everyone knew what they really were. Criminals.

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  4. Missy says:

    More Cop Hatred from San Fransicko. The outcome would probably be different had it been done in Solano County or Ukiah, but no, they wanted it in Cop Hater Central – SF.

    Please join our group – Bay Area Politics
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/313816595380968/

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  5. Reality Check says:

    One has to chuckled at the number of times people cite You Tube as if a snippet of video is an authoritative source. The origin of this rush to convict based on video got it’s start in the Rodney King case.

    The media edited the video to minimize the times King charged police despite their efforts to peacefully subdue him. When that failed, and only then, did they start wailing away with batons, which the media ran thousands of times. The police wailed too long, imo, but I wasn’t there and no video exists of the entire incident. I guess you can fool some of the people some of the time.

    King was the responsible party here who, lest we forget who was a drug driver that threatened public safety.

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  6. James Bennett says:

    David S.: Anyone who is of public service is to be appreciated and respected, especially a good cop.
    Most are.

    However I stand behind my statement.

    The overwelming amount of footage to that effect is difficult to contest.
    In fact we are moving toward a police state, as we will soon see.

    I think watching with our own eyes is a pretty good “authority”.

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  7. Robert says:

    How can you follow that? A conspiracy theorist. Snug down the reynolds wrap and back to your TV.

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  8. Graeme Wellington says:

    The nature of the police has changed quite a bit. The level of integrity and professionalism is much lower. The guys who are the cops now are the same guys in high school that didn’t make the football team. It’s not a lot of racists but there are a lot of A-holes. Almost everything people think of as racist is actually your standard run of the mill A-hole who would treat you as badly regardless of race.

    The threat to officers has never been greater. It’s natural to rely on weapons to short cut the actual tasks an officer is called upon. That’s why there are so many taser incidents where the officer uses it too quickly to assert authority. Officers need a lot more leadership training and less reliance on politional authority.

    Chances are this incident was actualy just human error – an accidental discharge. The other officers who fired were just protecting the first officer who fired.

    However, the typical A-hole does not want to go down the route of making an error or admitting they flinched or something involuntary or accidental and the rest of the tale was CYA and generally BS.

    In hindsight, all of these ca be handled differently. But I think there is still a conspiracy of A-holes at SRPD. Keep that in mind. These are the same jocks and jerks you knew in school. They are flawed and not the same kind of people that used to populate our police force.

    The police are attacked from all sides and they are always judged by their worst examples. All the good policework generally goes unnoticed.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    Yes, this is a simple case, and similar to other confrontations with police with tragic results.

    The man’s family called police. Why? Because he was violent and threatening, and shooting a semiautomatic pistol into the ceiling.

    For those of you who think the police should approach this situation the way a good pastor might, then maybe these kinds of calls should be routed to a nearby church. It works for me. But I doubt it will work well for the innocent victims who die when someone turns violent because they stopped taking their mental health meds.

    If only real world situations were as clear-cut and simple as after-the-fact armchair analysis.

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  10. Ken says:

    This is a simple case. Six police officers with a dog, tasers, pepper spray and batons. One unarmed man. We were so much better back in the day than the cowardly college boys of today.

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  11. Snarky says:

    Anne V:

    Your comment sounds like a commercial for the unemployment “mental health experts.”

    It doesn’t take a “highly trained team” to subdue a disoriented person of any type. All it takes is the usual, routine, every day wrestling match that police are paid to engage in WITHOUT KILLING the victim.

    The “highly trained team” is back at the local hospital. Not in the patrol car.

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  12. Snarky says:

    James Bennett:

    I agree with your comment that the “overreach of police is epidemic.” But that description does not go far enough to describe the violence with which we see police engage in and then justify themselves.

    You are aware, maybe, that a Houston, Texas, police office just shot and killed man whom he claimed was endangering his life while waving a “metal object.”

    That victim was a double amputee. Yep. The victim has ONE arm and ONE leg and was in a wheelchair in a group home. The “metal object” that the police officer attempted to use as an excuse to shoot that victim? A writing pen.

    Google the story. Its on Yahoo News right now.

    Hows that for “over reach” ??? I call it murder.

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  13. Kirstin says:

    @David Stubblebine,

    I’m not going to spend time accumulating data for you. We are not talking about outcome percentages here, and whether the cops usually get it right and therefore are off the hook for those “rare” cases such as this one. If one wants to look at percentages (and I don’t), maybe one should look at the number of times officers in a given locale discharge their weapons in the line of duty and under what circumstances. If a police department shoots 10 times a year and kills an unarmed man once, is that 90% good record satisfactory or does it still ask for improvement?

    We are talking about an indeterminate number of cases reported in the various media in which police or other security people killed unarmed suspects or suspects who were armed but with far less than the weaponry at the disposal of police/security. These dismal instances seem to be increasing.

    Yes, no one is perfect, and as I wrote below, I think most every resident wants to give the police the benefit of the doubt. I certainly do. However, police are supposedly trained to deal with the various degrees of danger which they may encounter, and they should be able to distinguish between cases where a suspect is clearly an imminent danger to them or bystanders and when he/she is not. As I said, perfection is impossible, but given the prominent cases that have been occurring, it does appear that further training would be well insisted upon. Wouldn’t the police want this kind of training to increase their assuredness out in the field? After all, no police officer wants to be even an inadvertent cause of an unarmed person’s death.

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  14. Anne V. says:

    This case is only one of more than a dozen episodes where mentally ill people in crisis were killed by law enforcement in Sonoma County, over the last 5-10 years. It is a longstanding problem, and one that has been persistently ignored by our county. Other counties (Napa, for one) have specific teams of highly trained officers who can diffuse these types of charged situations. When officers are familiar and experienced in handling those with severe mental illnesses, the use of weapons to resolve a crisis can be avoided. It needs to be a priority of our law enforcement…we can not continue our “Open Season on the Mentally Ill”.

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  15. David Stubblebine says:

    @James Bennet. YouTube? Really? Is this the best authority we have? And as for “the over reach of police is an epidemic” – you are going to have to back that up with something more authoritative than YouTube. This sounds like another statement based on belief rather than fact.

    The proportion of well-handled cases compared to cases with some question is HUGELY tilted toward excellence (YouTube notwithstanding). I know; I’ve seen it; I’ve lived it. Police officers are humans (and therefore flawed) and they deserve to be judged accordingly.

    The public must remember that the police create none of the situations they are thrust into; they only respond to conditions created by others. Yet they are expected to wade into the cesspool and extract a pristine ice cream cone every single time. This is an impossible standard. The fact they can do it at all, even once, is remarkable.

    Nothing in what I am saying should be construed as endorsing poor performance. The strive for excellence requires a hard look at all mistakes with an eye toward doing it better next time. But with the push for new hires, we (the public) should expect more rookie mistakes. The call for more police training clearly comes from people who do not know the landscape. Mandated public safety training is already at a point that there is little time left to actually deliver the services.

    The police excellence the public insists on (and rightfully so) is exactly why police deserve the pay they get. If you want to complain the police are overpaid, you must allow for weaker performance. You cannot have this one both ways.

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  16. James Bennett says:

    David, the over reach of police is an epidemic. I thought everyone knew that.

    You can watch footage of same on YouTube ’till bed time.

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  17. Reality Check says:

    Tragic case. With the benefit of hindsight so many things would be done different.

    We expect much of police. Apparently, we also expect them to put their lives at considerable risk in encounters with aggressive and violent people. Sometimes taking this risk will save the life of a Richard DeSantis. Sometimes it will result in the death of innocent people, police and civilian.

    Once upon a time, targets of police action routinely obeyed a lawful command of a police officer. If they didn’t everyone knew the result would be the maximum use of force to keep the situation from escalating.

    Today, a greater number of people ignore, disobey, or react violently to the lawful orders of police. The result is a dramatic increase in the number of violent confrontations. We can expect these confrontations to result in increasingly tragic results when we give a violent offender more room and time to act.

    The next stories you read will be from people complaining the police didn’t do enough, should have acted sooner, and that this inaction endanger innocent lives.

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  18. Kerston says:

    I would like to say that it does NOT take a military “assault rifle” to shoot a man at close range. What the hell was that all about ?

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  19. It is so sad for all involved that this man lost his life and another felt the need to kill to save his own life. Changes in the police procedures may spare the life of other mentally ill persons. A large number of the persons law enforcement deals with are mentally ill and killing them is tragedy. Training for the police in dealing with mentally ill persons, possibly under the influence, will save lives. The police need to be provided with more personal protection. More safety equipment for the police might prevent loss of lives. My heart goes out to everyone….

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  20. David Stubblebine says:

    Kirsten says, “As it is, police in many jurisdictions have become too likely to shoot suspects who are not actually, immediately threatening them or bystanders.”

    Please back this statement up with facts and figures. Remember to consider ALL those cases “in many jurisdictions” where police confront potentially violent people and resolve the situation without deadly force, so that your supporting facts and figures will be in proper context. Merely offering a few isolated instances of police misconduct will be insufficient to meet this challenge.

    This is an outrageously unsupportable statement based on belief rather than fact (and no amount of belief is sufficient to establish a single fact). No doubt, this was a sad situation all the way around but the well-trained police professionals did the best they could with what they had. As long as we hire humans to be our police officers, we must expect human behavior – which will always include imperfections. Perfect performance is an impossible, unreasonable standard.

    Bottom Line: Behave reasonably and always do what the nice policeman says; litigate the matter later.

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  21. Kirstin says:

    A man died because the police weren’t sure his person didn’t conceal a weapon somewhere? That doesn’t seem right. If he’d had a gun in his hand, and most especially if he’d actually brandished it at officers or had waved it around in a manner that indicated he was intending to shoot, the police case for shooting him would have been far more persuasive. As it is, police in many jurisdictions have become too likely to shoot suspects who are not actually, immediately threatening them or bystanders. We want to give those who professionally protect us the benefit of the doubt and every occasion to rightfully protect themselves, but peace officers must demonstrate reasonable judgment too. This seems to have been a case in which deadly force was applied when it need not have been. Police training procedures should be modified to teach new (and experienced) officers additional skills enabling them to more accurately evaluate the degree of danger in situations they are called to mediate.

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