Palo Alto attorney Bob Aaronson hired as Santa Rosa police auditor

JULIE JOHNSON

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | February 29, 2016, 5:43PM

Santa Rosa has hired a police auditor to review the police department’s internal investigations into complaints, officer discipline and use-of-force incidents.

Bob Aaronson, a Palo Alto attorney who also serves as the police auditor in Davis and Santa Cruz, will work on a part-time, on-call basis and already has begun reviewing complaints and personnel investigations since the city quietly retained his services in January.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said that he originally hired Aaronson in 2014 to produce a one-time review of the way his department investigates citizen complaints and other internal investigation practices. Schreeder said Aaronson’s report led to several changes, such as collecting more data on how officers use force. He and city manager Sean McGlynn agreed to hire Aaronson on an ongoing basis.

“What the community will learn is we’re not afraid of being evaluated,” Schreeder said.

Aaronson said he has an office within the Police Department and access to internal records. Aaronson will be in Santa Rosa six days a month for the first three months, and then he will be in the city three days each month going forward. He will be paid a flat fee of $6,000 per month, not to exceed $60,000 per year, and is expected to be reachable at all times, according to a contract signed Dec. 30.

The move comes as Sonoma County is poised to announce a director to lead the newly created Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach to provide civilian oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Human Resources Director Christina Cramer said that the top candidate has accepted the position and the county will announce the appointment once he’s given notice at his current job.

The public will never see Aaronson’s first project for the city. Aaronson spent about three months reviewing 60 personnel investigations and he produced a 20-page report to the City Attorney’s office, which allowed its findings to remain confidential.

Schreeder said that was by design, so that he could gain insight into departmental operations and procedures involving personnel matters protected by state law.

City Council member Julie Combs said that she believes hiring a police auditor is a “wonderful first step,” but she expects that some of the auditor’s work will be made public.

“Transparency is a big issue for me,” Combs said. “I understand it might be nice to start out more quietly, but at some point, the council needs to have a report on the findings.”

The changes prompted by his review, some still underway, include assigning a full-time sergeant to conduct internal investigations. Previously, the investigations fell to direct supervisors of the individual named in the complaint.
Schreeder said the department also has added steps to the way use-of-force incidents are investigated. The officer’s supervising sergeant interviews the officer and reads the report. Now, the supervisor also interviews the person upon whom force was used as well as witnesses.

Aaronson will have a hand in shaping a wide variety of other practices, such as how the department uses body camera footage and increasing information provided to people who file complaints against officers.

“One of the things I’m working on with Bob is what can we tell people, legally, so people have a feeling of closure and confidence that it was looked into thoroughly,” Schreeder said.

Aaronson has served as the police auditor in Santa Cruz and Davis for 13 and 10 years, respectively.

Aaronson said he began developing an expertise in police internal affairs procedures in the 1980s while a deputy city attorney in San Francisco. He’s conducted internal affairs audits and provided other analysis for agencies across California, including those in Contra Costa County, Anaheim, Fresno and Modesto.

He said he aims to eventually spend time with each officer in the department, mostly in the patrol car out in the field, and earn trust that his recommendations will improve the department.

“One of the advantages I bring is that I’ve seen a lot,” Aaronson said.

Aaronson said that in his experience, a police department of about 100 sworn officers typically receives 25 complaints per year. He estimates that 80 percent of complaints are generated by about 20 percent of a department’s workforce. Santa Rosa received 86 citizen complaints in 2014. Of those, 55 were determined to be unfounded, eight were sustained and the remainder inconclusive or otherwise resolved.

“For every complaint, I believe there are 10 other people who are reluctant to come forward,” Aaronson said. “I want more people to come forward so we have an opportunity to know what’s going on.”

Asked what Santa Rosa city residents are likely to learn about their Police Department from his work, Aaronson said that he is less committed to being transparent than he is to making the department function better from within.

“If you and I are best friends and I saw from across the room that your fly is open, I can shout this or I can walk over and whisper in your ear,” Aaronson said. “I don’t want to win the battle but lose the war.”

He said that Santa Rosa would ideally establish something like a police commission to which he would report his findings. In Santa Cruz, Aaronson gives in-depth reports to a committee of the City Council in a closed session.

Santa Rosa has joined 23 other law enforcement jurisdictions in California that have some form of civilian oversight. Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach will be the 24th. County supervisors approved a budget of about $800,000 for the first 18 months of the program.

Aaronson can be reached at 543-4179 or aaronson@sonic.net.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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