Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, retired deputy sued over death of Bloomfield man

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A former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy had a history of violent encounters with the public and was not properly trained in the use of a neck hold that led to the death of a Bloomfield man last November, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the man’s family.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office knew about a string of excessive force allegations against the retired deputy, Charles Blount, but failed to address them, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the mother of David Glen Ward, 52, the man who died in the Nov. 27 incident.

The lawsuit accuses Blount, 60, and Deputy Jason Little of using excessive force during the arrest, which took place on a dead-end street in Bloomfield at the conclusion of a high-speed chase.

Video cameras worn by the deputies captured the final moments of Ward’s life. They show Blount, a 19-year veteran with the Sheriff’s Office, wrapped his arm around Ward’s neck and bashed his head into the side of the car as he tried to pull him out through an open window.

Little fired his Taser twice at Ward through an open window of the Honda Civic, which Ward had reported stolen by an armed man several days prior. Unbeknownst to the deputies and two Sebastopol police officers at the scene, Ward had recovered the car earlier that day.

The lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount of damages, additionally names the county of Sonoma and Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick as defendants. It alleges Essick knew Blount had a “propensity for violence” and had a demonstrated track record of using excessive force in the past but failed to take remedial steps to prevent future violations by his employee.

In early 2019, Blount’s supervisor recommended the deputy undergo additional training in the use of the carotid hold after reviewing an incident in which Blount improperly used the tactic on a person, the lawsuit said. Blount responded by filing a formal complaint that he was being treated unfairly, according to the suit. Instead of retraining Blount, Essick began disciplinary proceedings against the supervisor, the suit alleged. Ward died a few months later.

“This approval of Blount’s violence from the highest level of the Sheriff’s Office caused the public to remain exposed to a man who sooner or later was going to kill someone, and who ultimately did,” the lawsuit said.

Essick did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday. Sonoma County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said it was against county and Sheriff’s Office policy to speak about ongoing lawsuits.

“We have not been served with the lawsuit, we haven’t read it, so at this time, per policy, we’re not going to comment,” Valencia said.

Harry Stern, Blount’s attorney, said in an email statement that he had not yet examined the lawsuit. He did not answer specific questions about the allegations against his client.

Little and Sebastopol police Officer Andrew Bauer, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, were accused of witnessing the use of excessive force by Blount and failing to protect Ward, despite a duty to do so.

Bauer, who was hired by Sebastopol Police six years ago but had worked for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office three years prior, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

Sebastopol Police Chief Gregory Devore said Bauer continued to work for the police department and has returned to patrol since the Nov. 27 incident. Devore declined to say whether the department had or would conduct an internal affairs investigation into the incident.

Little, who through Valencia declined to speak to a reporter, remained on administrative leave Tuesday.

An internal affairs investigation into the incident, which is customary after critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, was not yet completed, Valencia said.

A separate review that focused narrowly on Blount’s actions in the Nov. 27 incident concluded he violated general rules for Sheriff’s Office employees. Essick initiated proceedings to fire Blount, who retired from the department.

An independent investigation by the Santa Rosa Police Department into Ward’s death should be completed in two weeks barring any major omissions noted by supervisors, police Lt. Dan Marincik said.

At the end of the investigation, the file will be forwarded to the Sonoma County district attorney, who will make the final decision on whether the officers acted within the law, he added.

A senior attorney will review the police department’s report before passing it on to a supervising attorney and then District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who will make the final decision over whether any charges are merited in the case, Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said. Ravitch will try to make the determination within 90 days of receiving the Santa Rosa Police Department report.

Last week, the Marin County Coroner’s Office declared Ward’s death a homicide. It found that Ward died as a result of a physical confrontation with law enforcement, cardiorespiratory collapse, neck restraint, blunt impact injuries and the use of a Taser.

Izaak Schwaiger, one of two attorneys representing Ward’s mother, noted that Blount was wearing gloves with hardened carbon fiber knuckles during Ward’s arrest, which are illegal to own in the state, similar to brass knuckles. He said he hoped the lawsuit would help prevent similar deaths at the hands of law enforcement in Sonoma County.

“This is about getting accountability and trying to get change through that accountability,” Schwaiger said.

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