Not Much to Feel Good About in DeSantis Settlement



How long before Santa Rosa will compensate the family of a mentally unstable victim of a police shooting? The most recent estimate is about six years.

Richard DeSantis was killed by a Santa Rosa police sergeant in 2007 after DeSantis’ wife called to report that her husband had been shooting a handgun into the ceiling of his home during a manic episode. When he charged at officers outside, they weren’t sure if he still had the gun, and shot him to death.

It was reported that the city agreed to a $1 million settlement in May of this year, with no admission of wrongdoing. The settlement is a “business decision,” as Santa Rosa police chief Tom Schwedhelm coldly refers to it, that benefited mostly the DeSantis family’s attorneys.

There’s so much to this story, and most of it makes me sick. It’s a lose-lose-lose kind of thing, just the ticket to brighten up a Thursday afternoon.

That lawyers benefit handsomely from this settlement should not come as a surprise to anyone (insert your favorite bloodsucking lawyer joke here), but the numbers are shocking to the casual reader. Of that $1 million settlement, $735,000 goes to lawyers. That’s not the worst of it. After the verdict, the attorneys reportedly asked for $1.8 million (because how would they feed their families on a measly $735,000?).

Maybe the attorneys’ fees were so high because the city of Santa Rosa fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, several appeals later, decided to bite the bullet, so to speak. The city paid $500,000 total, with the rest handled by insurance. Nobody from the city is talking, save for the police chief to say this settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing. In a case like this, something needs to be said. After this and several other police shootings involving victims with mental health issues in 2007 and 2008, Sonoma County put together a team of mental health professionals to assist in such situations. That alone is admission of a problem, if not wrongdoing. Maybe it would be appropriate for the police chief to publicly state as much.

Reports of the case throughout the years of verdicts, appeals and other court dates show a pattern for Tom Schwedhelm, a 30-year veteran of the department who was appointed chief in 2009, of defending the officer in question to the point of disagreeing with the court’s opinion. As an officer sworn to protect citizens and uphold the law, a balance needs to be struck here between the fraternity of police officers, with the incredibly difficult job they sometimes face, and citizens whose lives don’t need to end because of a mental break.

It’s one thing to defend a fellow officer, but it’s another to ignore a larger problem. It could lead to more citizens dying from police actions or, conversely, police dying from incidents involving mentally unstable citizens. Let’s put some real effort into changing the culture of “shoot first, ask later.”

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