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Santa Rosa police critics question legal defense of officer in 2007 killing


Critics of the Santa Rosa Police Department called for a full accounting of the city’s legal defense in the fatal shooting of Richard DeSantis and said the officer involved should be fired.

Richard DeSantis.

A small group of activists addressed the City Council on Tuesday, five days after a federal jury found a Santa Rosa police sergeant violated the civil rights of DeSantis when he fatally shot the unarmed man outside his Roseland home in 2007.

They urged the city not to continue spending money to appeal the case, which is five years old and has already been petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think we need to cut our losses and move on,” said Robert Edmonds, an outspoken critic of police on issues ranging from use of force to gang prevention.

Edmonds said it was a “poke in the eye” to residents of the city for Santa Rosa officials to continue to deny officers did anything wrong when a federal jury just found otherwise.

Attila Nagy, who last year took police to task for a SWAT display that allowed young children to handle high-powered weapons, said he, too, was concerned the city would spend more money defending the case given the city’s financial constraints.

He said the use of lethal force in the case troubled him. “Any officer who does wrongful death like that can’t be on the force,” Nagy said.

Council members, who later went behind closed doors to discuss the status of the case, did not reply to the speakers.

But Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, who attended the two-week trial, defended not only the officer found liable in the case, Sgt. Richard Celli, but the other officers involved in the shooting as “very valuable members of our organization who acted in the appropriate fashion.”

He noted that a thorough investigation by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office cleared the officers of wrongdoing. Nothing he heard at trial changed his opinion that the shooting, while tragic, was justified.

DeSantis was shot after he charged officers who responded to his wife’s 911 call reporting that he was “manic” and shooting a handgun into the ceiling of their South Avenue home. After initially complying with officers’ instructions, DeSantis charged officers and was shot, first with a rubber bullet and then by Celli and two other officers.

Celli testified that even though he never saw a gun, he had to assume DeSantis was still armed. Celli was the only officer found liable in the case because the evidence showed he fired the fatal shot.

Eric Safire, the attorney for DeSantis’ family, said police had other options than to shoot “an unarmed mental patient.” DeSantis had been diagnosed as bipolar and had stopped taking his medication, according to trial testimony.

The eight-member jury found Celli did not have a “legitimate law enforcement purpose” for the shooting and awarded his wife, young daughter and mother a total of $512,000.

At the council meeting, City Attorney Caroline Fowler called Edmonds’ statements about how much the city had spent defending the case “false and misleading.”

Edmonds has told supporters that the city “has spent over $1 million defending” Celli and now planned to spent “hundreds of thousands more” appealing the case.

But Fowler noted that she personally tried the case.

“My salary is paid by the city whether I am litigating or whether I am attending to other matters,” she said.

Edmonds said his $1 million estimate included the judgment amount, Fowler’s time, trial costs, and attorney fees that Safire has estimated add up to “thousands of hours.”

“That’s gotta be in the ballpark of a million dollars,” Edmond said.

Fowler has said she doesn’t have a breakdown of the city’s legal costs to date in the case. She said the decision whether to appeal the case won’t rest solely with the city but also with the insurance plan that covers losses above $500,000.

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

10 Responses to “Santa Rosa police critics question legal defense of officer in 2007 killing”

  1. Snarky says:

    “”Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, …defended not only the officer found liable in the case, Sgt. Richard Celli, but the other officers involved ….”


    Total immaturity on his part. Classic bureaucrat.

  2. GAJ says:

    Well, I was wrong about the raid yesterday.

    While flash grenades, armored vehicles and 150 cops sounds like overkill, the neighbors in that ‘hood were busy busy busy!

    1,500lbs of plants, 96lbs of processed weed and:

    “Officers additionally recovered a half-pound of cocaine, five grams of methamphetamine, six firearms – including a rifle with a silencer — and more than $20,000 in cash during the multi-agency effort to rid one neighborhood of what authorities said were gardens at a large majority of the homes.”

    I have to guess one of the few neighbors not in on the hustle got po’d and called the cops…and I don’t blame them.

    At least they waited till kids were in school to start the raid.


  3. steve humphrey says:


    You would probably have a different outlook if it was your son, daughter, or spouse who was inflicted with this disease.
    My son, who is bipolar and takes medications, was instructed to call 911 in case he was suffering from an “episode”. When he did, he was immediately arrested and beaten up in the process… then spent the next three days in county jail.
    Once you have experienced this treatment, it is hard to not blame the training these officers recieve, or the lack of application in these situations.
    I admit it is very difficult to tell the difference between someone who is whacked out on meth from another who suffers from this disease. The real difference here, as well as my own son’s case, is that the police and authorities were alerted ahead of time to the victims mental state. Armed with that knowledge they clearly chose the wrong application of force.

  4. Time for a Change says:

    The cops acted appropriately as any armed citizen would have. If a crazy fires a gun in the house and then charges the cops called to handle the call, you bet the crazy is going to be shot.

    How could they be sure he would not kill one of them? These anti-police observers are way off base.

  5. Robert says:

    On the same page was a story about 4 armed guys doing a home invasion. The VICTIMS machine gun and other guns and a bullet proof vest. I think the mj is secondary to the crime. Kill to protect or steal. If the cops choose not to ignore it, they better be ready for it.

  6. Reality Check says:


    Wow! That’s quite a picture. These guys are ready for Afghanistan.

    I’m not sure, though, this was really a police, as in local police, raid. It’s identified as an FBI Swat team. SR police are likely along for the ride as a condition of getting federal money. Federalising local police is a terrible idea.

    But easy money from the Feds corrupts practically all of us. Yes, chilling. Wait until they’re forming outside a doctor’s office for violating some healthcare mandate.

  7. Taxpayer says:

    Has there ever been a Sonoma county public safety worker charged with doing anything wrong? Why are they holier than thou?If so what were the consequences? Did they get to keep their job/pension?If so, why?

  8. Paul says:

    The war drags on! The war on pot makes our wars in the middle east look good! You think Afghanistan is tough, being the Graveyard Of Empires and all, the war on pot is absolutely UNWINABLE. End it now!
    “Never in history has there been a black market defeated from the supply side.” – Economist R.T. Naylor
    Read that quote again, then think BOOZE, POT, GUNS. IF people WANT something, they will get it, and all the laws and draconian raids won’t stop it, EVER. Let’s stop throwing our hard earned taxpayer dollars down this prohibitionist hole.

  9. GAJ says:

    Simply crazy that the police today are willing to put people at risk using storm trooper tactics in a Santa Rosa neighborhood all because of the horrors of marijuana.

    Flash grenades, armored vehicles and battering rams?



  10. Skippy says:

    Don’t want your family killed by police? Either control them yourselves or at least don’t allow them to put themselves in a position where an officer fears for his life.
    A man who has been shooting a pistol in his house and then charges the responding officers will probably get shot 100% of the time.
    It sucks, but police are not psych techs.