The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety posted this photo on its Facebook page on Sept. 20. (Via the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety)
The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety is announcing revised policies aimed at tracking money and other evidence taken by police officers. The city says the changes come at the preliminary recommendation of a police policy consultant hired to investigate the department's drug and cash seizures.
And the city faces yet another lawsuit in connection with those same seizures.
The suit filed Thursday in federal court alleges that Rohnert Park police officers violated the civil rights of a cannabis farmer. It is the second lawsuit to be filed against Rohnert Park since KQED reported on a series of allegations that Rohnert Park officers illegally seized marijuana and cash from them.
Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz wrote in an email that the city cannot comment on pending litigation. He said that an internal investigation launched around April is ongoing.
The sergeant at the center of the allegations, Jacy Tatum, quit the department in June. In August, the director of the department, Brian Masterson, retired.
'Putting it on Paper'
In response to the allegations, the city also hired former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan to investigate the department’s drug and cash seizure practices and policies. Jordan’s full report has not yet been presented to the City Council, and he declined to comment because he is not authorized to speak about the investigation.
But Rohnert Park police Cmdr. Aaron Johnson said the following recommended policy changes are already underway:
Seized cash will be counted on camera.
If cash seizure exceeds $1,000, a supervisor will do a verification count.
Documentation of the circumstances of the seizure
Documentation of the names of people who have had property seized
Hiring a second property technician
Installing cameras in the property room
Creating a room for evidence processing
A new property and evidence packaging manual
Johnson said these changes are primarily a clarification of the department’s written policy, as Jordan has recommended. Johnson said he and his fellow officers were already following the procedures laid out in the new policy for the most part.
“Obviously, it is not a secret that there are a couple cases in which it didn't happen, allegedly,” Johnson said. “It's nice to have someone from the outside come in and say, ‘Hey, why don't you try this language or change it this way so that it is crystal-clear in the event anyone ever had a question on how to do it’.”
Over the past three to four months, Johnson said, the evidence clerk has also worked to inventory every piece of evidence in the department's property room. He said nothing was missing.
“I checked a homicide case from the '80s,” Johnson said. “And I can't tell you what the evidence was, but the clerk went right to the freezer, opened the freezer, pulled the envelope out and, lo and behold, there was evidence from the '80s on a homicide case.”
Johnson would not directly address whether former Sgt. Tatum was operating outside the policies and procedures of the department.
Johnson said media scrutiny of "a few incidents" have tainted the whole department.
"We do a great job at providing excellent service to our community," he said. "Unfortunately, this did not help us."
The lawsuit filed Thursday stems from a Dec. 29, 2017, traffic stop. Then-Sgt. Tatum and Officer Joseph Huffaker pulled over Huedell Freeman as he was driving past Cloverdale, a small town about 40 miles north of Rohnert Park on the Mendocino-Sonoma County border.
The complaint alleges that the officers unlawfully pulled Freeman over and seized 47 pounds of marijuana from the 60-year-old cannabis farmer. Freeman has said he was transporting his legally grown product to a legal dispensary in Southern California. He tried through his lawyer to recover his cannabis.
The city never returned it.
Freeman is suing for the value of the cannabis and for damages related to the allegedly unlawful stop.
His attorney, Stephen Gallenson, said Freeman filed the suit because he wants to be made whole financially, but also because he wants to prevent this kind of thing from happening to someone else.
"This is just outrageous conduct," Gallenson said. "I think Hue feels that way, and he wanted to do something that would stop law enforcement, in this particular case Rohnert Park police department, from engaging in this behavior."
City officials said they could not comment on the lawsuit. Rohnert Park denied an earlier claim for damages Freeman filed with the city.
A Texas resident named Zeke Flatten filed a lawsuit against Rohnert Park in November. That complaint alleges Rohnert Park officers conspired to steal 3 pounds of cannabis from him during a traffic stop. On Thursday, the city filed a motion to dismiss the suit, denying Flatten's claims.
One of the attorneys representing Flatten, Izaak Schwaiger, said the department's recent policy changes could signal a step in the right direction, but they're long overdue.
“I mean, I commend them for getting to Kindergarten Cop level with all this stuff,” Schwaiger said. “That's terrific. But if this is their best response to really compelling evidence that they've got a corrupt and criminal element within their organization, it's never going to be enough.”
More Change on the Horizon?
Another attorney who recently won a case at trial against Rohnert Park is also seeking to change the way the city's police do business. A federal jury found in November that Tatum and two other officers violated a couple’s constitutional rights during a 2014 search of their home. The officers were looking for Elva and Raul Barajas’ adult son, who was on probation.
The jury awarded the couple $70,000 in punitive damages against Tatum, who entered their home through the back door with his gun drawn as two other officers talked with Barajas at their front door.
The Barajas' attorney, Arturo González, is seeking a court order that would require the department to create a written policy for probation searches, and additional training for officers doing probation searches.
“They can't be running in through the back door when the officers are knocking on the front,” González said. “They only should search the areas that the law allows them to search. And lastly, and this is important, they shouldn't be conducting probation searches when nobody is home.”
"The City is currently evaluating its options regarding the Barajas matter," Assistant City Manager Schwartz wrote in an email. "We have no further comment at this time."
A judge is set to hear arguments on the request for a court order in early January. González said he will also seek to recover about $500,000 in legal fees in connection with the case.
The city has also hired a new director of its public safety department.
Cmdr. Johnson was on the committee that hired Tim Mattos, the former police chief of Suisun City, to lead the department.
Mattos “seems like a phenomenal human being,” Johnson said. “And from everything I've heard, he's all about the community. He's about accountability, which is good, and he's also about mentorship and developing people.”
Johnson said he is looking forward to 2019.
“We're going to get through our stains and our black eyes,” he said. “And we're not just putting makeup on the black eye. Our black eyes are going to heal. We're going to move forward.”