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Ukiah Police Chief looking forward after settlement

A pale pink municipal building with signs saying "Ukiah Civic Center" and "Police."

March 29, 2022 — On April first of last year, four Ukiah police officers beat a naked, mentally ill man on South State Street, inflicting 54 punches, four knee strikes, and a kick to the head. Officers emptied an entire can of pepper spray in Gerardo Magdaleno’s face and deployed their tasers four times. The incident was captured on multiple bystander videos. It was also recorded by a body camera worn by one officer and a dash camera in another officer’s car. Those videos were released in December.

Earlier this month, the city announced that an independent investigation had “concluded that there is no sustained finding that Ukiah PD actions violated the Department’s use of force policy.”

Now the case has been settled for $ 211,000 plus attorneys’ fees of approximately $92,500, according to Magdaleno’s attorney, Izaak Schwaiger. The case is now dismissed, and Schwaiger added that “The City has not indicated it will change any of its practices or policies.”

But new Police Chief Noble Waidelich says there have already been changes to the department’s ability to respond to mental health crises, and he’s planning further trainings to better prepare officers for encounters with mentally ill people. The city and county share a mobile crisis team that currently has two crisis workers and is available seven days a week. As of mid-February, the team had responded to fourteen calls within city limits.

An internationally recognized criminologist specializing in autism in the criminal justice system is offering a seminar for first responders next month. That’s through the Redwood Coast Regional Center, best known locally for providing services to families and schools for children on the autism spectrum.

But in the days after the beating, the police department lost credibility with some members of the community. Justin Wyatt, the chief at the time, posted a brief Facebook video and did not grant interviews about the matter. A police department press release characterized the taser deployments and multiple bursts of pepper spray as “hands-off measures,” stating that they were ineffective and that “The Officers then attempted to gain compliance by delivering numerous distraction strikes to the suspect’s head.” One man who marched in support of Magdaleno and against police violence last year expressed his disgust. “That was pretty offensive,” he said. “You could look at it and understand exactly what they’re doing…it sounds like something made up to justify police looking for an excuse to punch the man in the face.

Waidelich is not at liberty to discuss the investigation into the Magdaleno case, but he insists his department is looking ahead. In an interview last week, he called for a culture shift and talked about what he’s doing to get there. “I think this comes back to the crux of where we need to go as law enforcement as a whole,” he reflected; “which is treating people like human beings, treating them like people. Back to the Magdaleno matter, just taking time. Since that incident, we’ve partnered with mobile crisis, so now we have the ability to have mobile crisis workers respond. We’re also working with the county to set up a program called Heads Up. Basically, what the plan there would be is as our officers become better prepared to identify people in mental crisis or even chronic homelessnes, we’re going to have a referral program that we can refer that person to the county and allow the experts, the people who have the better training to determine what service provider could best go out and engage that person.” As far as the concept of a public safety oversight committee, Waidelich declared that, “That doesn’t necessarily scare me. I would say, well, let’s review models for small agencies and how those work. Along the lines of our equity and diversity committee, if we can demonstrate to those people the work that we’re doing and the value in it, that only goes to my aid, in terms of credibility in the community.”

Waidelich said he’s working on gathering letters from community groups and the city manager to implement a training called Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE, which is designed to teach officers to intervene when they see a peer or even a superior engaged in misconduct.

He’s also introduced a voluntary special considerations form, which therapists or loved ones can submit to the department on behalf of someone with a behavioral health diagnosis. He hopes this will give officers a heads up when they are dispatched to a situation involving a mental health crisis. “They could outline the person’s information and then whatever things we should be concerned about, whether that’s wandering or maybe hostility towards law enforcement, and then we’re goin to retain these and track those with the address of the person. So if we went to 123 Main Street and John Doe was there, it would trigger in dispatch an alert to this form and potentially give the officer a little bit more information about what they might be dealing with,” he explained. The form is for department use only, so the information would not be made public. He plans to debut it as soon as the form is translated into Spanish.

LIke law enforcement departments nationwide, Ukiah struggles with recruitment and retention. About half the force has been hired since 2018. Still, there are legacy problems. Kevin Murray, a former officer charged with multiple sex crimes, is set to go on trial in mid-May. In the meantime, Waidelich hopes his efforts will keep violence off the force, rebuild community trust, and save the city from further hefty payouts.