Editor’s note: We have reached out to the Windsor town manager, Windsor police chief and the Windsor town attorney, but have not yet received a response. We will be updating this story as we hear from them. 

On Sept. 10, the law firm representing La’Marcus McDonald against the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in a federal police brutality lawsuit filed an amended complaint detailing a history of police misconduct. The lawsuit stems from an incident on July 9, 2019, in which a welfare check in Windsor turned into an altercation. The Windsor Police Department are Sonoma County Sherriff’s deputies contracted to the town for police services.

In a lawsuit filed on June 24 in the Northern District of California, the County of Sonoma, the Town of Windsor, Sheriff Mark Essick and Windsor police officers Travis Perkins, Brent Kidder and Gregory Clegg are charged with violating the civil rights of McDonald, an African American man, in July 2019. The suit seeks general damages, special damages, punitive and exemplary damages, attorney’s fees and statutory damages.

The lawsuit was filed on McDonald’s behalf by Reed. R. Kathrein and Steve W. Berman of the law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP.

The filing follows what attorneys for the plaintiff described as “excessive use of deadly force during a welfare check, false arrest and imprisonment of La’Marcus McDonald, a 34-year-old Black man.” According to the complaint, on July 9, 2019, the Windsor Police Department responded to a welfare check of McDonald, who was sleeping in a legally parked vehicle. Police officers detained McDonald and used “excessive and deadly force by slamming Plaintiff headfirst into the ground while holding his right arm, breaking off Plaintiff’s two front teeth, knocking out a third, causing bleeding from the mouth, facial and arm lacerations, and rendering him unconscious,” the complaint reads.

Attorneys also claim that officers then unlawfully arrested McDonald, filed a false police report and falsely imprisoned him, with the cooperation of supervisors. 

The amended complaint filed on Sept. 10 adds what attorneys call “additional evidence” and bring in what they term a history of civil rights issues in the department.

“In response to our client’s lawsuit highlighting his brazen mistreatment, the Sonoma County sheriff cried that the complaint lacked evidence, so we’ve made sure to leave no doubt: the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has been complicit both in our client’s case of police brutality and misconduct, and in a history of similar instances,” said Kathrein in a statement.

“The Sonoma sheriff got exactly what he asked for: evidence,” Kathrein added. “It has never been more clear that what’s happening in Sonoma must stop. It is our hope that along with the community’s voices and existing efforts, we will push for true reform.”

According to the filing, attorneys claim the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office trains its officers to use a “survivor’s mindset,” according to its official training materials, in which it is stated it is “better them than you,” who gets injured, and that officers should act first and then consider justifying their actions.

“Stay alive! Then prove your conduct was proper,” the lawsuit quotes from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s Arrest/Control training policy.

“We’ve included the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s Arrest/Control training policy attached as an exhibit in our complaint because its core message is utterly backwards,” Kathrein said. “Law enforcement officers are hired to serve and protect, not survive by any means necessary and justify their conduct after.”

The amended complaint also recites the long history of community involvement in attempting to get reform of the Sheriff’s Office in light of the large number of police killings over time.

Finally, according to the law firm, the amended complaint brings front and center the Sheriff’s Office refusal to provide any transparency as to the unreasonable use of force and other police misconduct, thereby keeping this information hidden from the public, according to attorneys.

A full copy of the amended complaint can be found here.

The suit accuses defendants of violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as California’s Constitution and common law. Sonoma County and the Sheriff’s office refuse to release the body camera footage to McDonald, despite a new California statute (Cal. Gov. Code § 6254(f)(4)), requiring the release of such video within 45 days where use of force causes death or great bodily harm.

According to attorneys, the Sonoma Sheriff takes the position that a concussion and the loss of three front teeth does not constitute great bodily harm, which in turn allows them to not report the incident to the California Department of Justice, as required by California law (Cal. Gov. Code §  12525.2(d)). The sheriff has not turned over the body camera footage despite claiming his officers did nothing wrong.

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