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Sonoma County settles lawsuit over alleged jail beatings

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Sonoma County agreed to pay $1.7 million to settle a lawsuit filed by former Sonoma County Jail inmates who said they endured physical assaults and verbal abuse by correctional deputies, officials said Monday.

As a result of the case, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has retrained its jail staff on use-of-force procedures and is in the process of purchasing body-worn cameras for sworn corrections personnel and installing cameras in common areas of the jail, Sheriff Rob Giordano said.

The case stems from an incident on May 28, 2015, when jail staff responded to a disturbance in a high-security wing of the main jail in Santa Rosa. Inmates were, one-by-one, taken out of their cells by a group of correctional officers. They were yelled at while handcuffed and being restrained face-down on the ground with their legs and arms held behind their backs, according to sheriff’s officials and videos of the incident taken by sheriff’s personnel.

“Some of the things we did were unacceptable,” Giordano said.

Video of the incident, taken by sheriff’s personnel and posted online by the former inmates’ lawyer, include a moment with correctional deputies in tactical gear holding an inmate on the ground, folding his legs backwards. In an expletive-filled burst directed at the inmate, one deputy said: “… acting like a little f.....g bitch. Cause that’s what you are. And guess what? I run this f.....g unit. I own you.”

Seven men, all former jail inmates, joined the federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in October 2015 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Izaak Schwaiger, the former inmates’ attorney, said up to 20 inmates were beaten in a continuous round of assaults sanctioned through a formal sheriff’s policy called “yard counseling” or “behavior counseling” started about 20 years ago by Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker. Walker ran Sonoma County’s two jails until April when he was placed on administrative leave because of due to an undisclosed personnel investigation.

“If you are expected to make our community safer, you don’t do that by taking people in jails who have been identified as needing rehabilitation and making all their issues worse by causing them mental and physical injuries, by degrading them and giving them mental anguish,” Schwaiger said. “That doesn’t make anyone safer.”

As part of the agreement, Sonoma County sheriff’s officials will work with the plaintiffs and the U.S. District Court judge to discuss ways to change how correctional deputies respond to unruly inmate behavior, Giordano said.

One of the plaintiffs, Marqus Martinez, said he is hopeful other inmates will not experience the same type of abuse of power in the Sonoma County Jail.

Martinez, who said he was in custody on a pending domestic violence case and hadn’t been convicted when the incident occurred, said the correctional deputies inflicted multiple rounds of the so-called “counseling” on the inmates, which left him hurt physically and full of anxiety.

They all felt their treatment was wrong, and so a group of inmates pooled funds to bail him out after the incident so he could contact a lawyer, according to Martinez.

“I’ve never been treated like that ever in my life, and I don’t want anyone to be treated like that,” Martinez, 30, of Santa Rosa said. “Hours later, they came back a second time and they did it again. The second time they came back in ski masks, dressed in black, intimidating outfits. You could hear them coming, ‘You’re about to get it again.’ ”

Giordano said the jail has not rescinded the behavior counseling policy because the document itself doesn’t condone the behavior he found unacceptable in video recordings of the incident. Giordano said it’s sometimes necessary for correctional deputies to talk with an inmate about his behavior or remove him from a situation, and it’s also necessary at times to restrain inmates.

“The whole goal is to correct bad behavior, and if you’re demeaning someone or are being disrespectful, that’s not going to work,” Giordano said.

Sheriff-elect Mark Essick has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he would get rid of the procedures depicted in the videos from the case as soon as he took office, and he reiterated that after his election win.

“We can’t have inmates be handcuffed, placed face down on the floor and screamed at. That’s not acceptable. You can’t do that and twist their legs back — that policy has got to go,” Essick said last week after election tallies confirmed his outright win against two opponents.

The case is the latest payout by Sonoma County to settle legal claims against law enforcement.

The largest sum was $1.75 million paid to the family of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old boy shot and killed by deputies in 2007. In 2016, Sonoma County paid $1.25  million to settle an excessive force lawsuit from a man who was shot 23 times with a Taser while being booked into the jail on drunken-driving charges.