Discussion on police policy on use of force now agendized for next meeting
On June 6, a local petition was started to call for the resignation of Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold in response to comments made during a June 1 city council meeting when Gold opined that she didn’t feel there was a need to discuss police policy after Councilmember Joe Naujokas asked if the council could agendize a discussion on the Healdsburg Police Department’s use of force policy in relation to marches and protests following the Minnesota homicide of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of police officers.
In an interview with Gold on June 8, Gold said there is a discussion on police policy planned for the next council meeting on June 15 with Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke.
As of Monday morning, the petition, started by Jessica Pilling, had over 1,000 signatures and calls for Gold’s immediate resignation and for her to be replaced by a BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) “so that all citizens of Healdsburg can be represented.”
According to Gold, in order to be removed from office, citizens would need to start a recall election and collect signatures from Healdsburg residents.
The text of the petition claims that Gold said during the meeting she doesn’t think “that talking about racism or police use of force is worthy of putting on the agenda,” and that “She said these issues are not a problem in Healdsburg and that our local police force has zero issues with use of force, racial bias or anything of that sort.”
Gold did not say that she thought racism or police use of force wasn’t worthy of being placed on the agenda during the meeting, but she did say that because of the police department’s leadership and current policies, she didn’t feel that a discussion was needed.
Pilling felt that even though Gold’s comments weren’t explicitly about racism, not wanting to discuss the topic of police policies about the use of force still was a misstep, since police brutality and racism often go hand in hand.
The discussion at last week’s meeting started when Naujokas asked if the council could plan a discussion on what the police department’s policies are.
“I think we as elected leaders owe it to our constituents to have a deeper conversation on this topic so I’m asking that we have some conversation in the very near future, some sort of way that we as a city, as a city government, can lead our community in having those difficult conversations in what is our nature in our relationship to police and our history with our use of force with the police department and how the police department treats those questions and what training they get,” Naujokas said.
In response, Gold had said, “My reaction to that is we do not have that particular problem in Healdsburg because we have a very good police chief who is on top of these issues and trains his staff in appropriate conflict resolution methods, and to me it’s a solution looking for a problem. Until we feel like we have that problem in our community I don’t see that’s a place where I don’t particularly see us put our time and energy.”
At the council meeting, when Gold asked if there was consensus on the council to agendize a discussion on the topic, no other council member — David Hagele, Shaun McCaffery or Evelyn Mitchell — gave support for Naujokas’s suggestion of putting a discussion about police use of force on the agenda.
Gold’s comments sparked a firestorm of criticism.
Gold and the Tribune received many letters of concern on the topic. One letter of concern was from Healdsburg photographer Elena Halvorsen.
The letter was included in the text of the petition and reads in part, “I am embarrassed and outraged by your comments at Monday night’s council meeting in response to Councilmember Naujokas’s questions about police and race in Healdsburg. I grew up in Healdsburg and am grateful that I have the opportunity to raise my children here. We need more from our elected officials than a complete denial of an issue that many in our town encounter on a daily basis. To say that racism is not a problem in Healdsburg is putting your white privilege on full display. Our own school district has spent three years working to dismantle the systematic racism in our school system and we are only at the beginning of that journey.”
Halvorsen goes on in her letter to challenge Gold to examine her own white privilege and racial bias. According to the text of the petition, Gold’s response to Halvorsen’s letter was, “I really don’t know how to respond to your misplaced outrage and the hyperbolic tone of your letter. Perhaps after you have cooled down a bit we can arrange a civil phone conversation.”
Later in another phone interview with Gold on June 8, Gold confirmed her and Halvorsen's correspondence and said that she did not know how to respond.
Halvorsen also posted the correspondence on her own Facebook page and had said that she later had a phone conversation with Gold, but felt that they didn't come to a clear resolution.
In an interview with Halvorsen, she said she left the conversation feeling as if Gold did not really understand the responsibility of her words or the impact of what her words meant, and that she felt she did not understand the connection between race and police and that she felt that "she had done nothing wrong."
"I left the conversation feeling very frustrated because for any sort of real change to happen, people have to be humble and show humility and look inside themselves to do the hard work and see what their impact of their policy and words are," Halvorsen said.
Halvorsen said while she wasn't involved with creating the petition, her end goal is for everyone to have a seat at the table and for all voices to be heard.
In response to the community’s reaction, Gold posted two statements on her Facebook page on June 6.
At 7:21 a.m., she said, “It has come to my attention that someone has taken words I said at the last council meeting out of context and is spreading around the community that I don’t think racism is an issue here. I would never say that. Racism is an issue everywhere. My words, ‘We don’t have that particular problem in Healdsburg’ were said specifically in reference to the misuse of force by police. I stand by that statement. Under the progressive and conscientious leadership of Chief Kevin Burke, we do not currently have a problem with misuse of force by police in Healdsburg.”
Later that evening, she made a post saying she understood that her comment was inappropriate.
“I have reflected on the conversations I have had and the letters I have received, and I understand now that my initial response to this was inappropriate. I was speaking off the cuff and within a narrow band at the council meeting, on the question of whether excessive use of force is an issue in the Healdsburg Police Department. But clearly, the public is engaged in a much broader conversation,” Gold wrote.
When asked how she felt about what transpired over the weekend with the petition and her statements, Gold said she felt that her words were misrepresented.
“I feel that my words and who I am and all of that has been misrepresented and has caused this great response,” Gold said. “I would like to say that I strongly support the Black Lives Matter movement, that I certainly would never deny that there is racism in Healdsburg, that I am interested in hearing anyone’s experience as people of color in Healdsburg. I’m very open about hearing the racism that they’ve experienced and I am very open to any ideas to make Healdsburg a more inclusive place.”
According to Pilling, the petition wasn’t just about Gold’s comments at the council, but a whole array of recent missteps, including her alleged response to Halvorsen, Gold’s earlier Facebook post on June 3 that called Floyd’s death an “apparent murder” and another post on June 3 that asked the community to refrain from protesting due to the risk of violence, as well as the council’s decision not to agendize a larger discussion on the issue of racism and police use of force.
“People are angry on the position she took,” Pilling said. “She made a seriously misguided step.”
Gold said the June 15 city council presentation will include a report from Chief Burke on the police department’s policies.
She added that on June 5 she signed the mayor’s pledge from the Obama Foundation to commit to the following policies regarding police brutality:
- Review police use of force policies.
- Engage your communities by including a diverse range of input, experiences and stories in your review.
- Report the findings of your review to your community and seek feedback.
- Reform your community’s police use of force policies.
“I’m going to be working with him (the police chief) to see how the protocols and policies in place map to the protocols listed in the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ protocols,” Gold said.
“8 Can’t Wait” is a project by Campaign Zero and encourages cities to take action by banning chokeholds and strangleholds; requiring de-escalation; requiring a warning before shooting; requiring exhaustive alternatives before shooting; banning shooting at moving vehicles; requiring a use of force continuum; requiring comprehensive reporting; and requiring officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and to report those incidents immediately to a supervisor.
“So we are going to see how our protocols match to that,” Gold said.
She said she has a lot of confidence in the Healdsburg Police Department “under the very aggressive leadership” of Burke, but that they need to communicate to the public what those protocols and policies are.
In a Facebook post from Healdsburg Police Chief on June 1, Burke said the following about of the events unfolding across the country:
“The dedicated group of men and women who make up the Healdsburg Police Department fully understand the justified anger and frustration of our greater community, and we support the right to lawfully assemble in order to call attention to the issues raised by this tragedy. We are committed to continuing to earn the trust of our community that we serve and will continue to work every day toward building and earning the trust and confidence of our community.”