Activists raise alarm over Sonoma County sheriff hired consultant to produce video of fatal shooting

The 11-minute, 37-second Pelaez-Chavez video includes about six minutes and 20 seconds of body camera footage of Dietrick and Congressman Anthony Powers, according to a Press Democrat analysis.

On August 19, Essick estimated that his office could take another two weeks to produce the full body cam videos, but said it could take longer. State law requires the agency to produce the complete images within 45 days, but does not prevent early release.

Essick has a staff member assigned to write videos, he said. He cited budget constraints as a reason for not training more people for this work or media response.

“We know that releasing videos of critical incidents does not satisfy the spirit or the letter of (state law enacted in 2019),” Essick said. However, he said, the department has complied with the law in the past and released full images and other required documents.

“We released the (Cole-produced) video first because there’s usually an insatiable public need from the public and the media to get it out as quickly as possible,” Essick said. “So we’re using (Critical Incident Video) to get it out quickly.”

However, releasing raw footage to a civilian contractor while concealing it from the general public could conflict with state laws governing access to public records, experts said.

David Loy, legal director of government transparency advocacy group the First Amendment Coalition, said he believed the agency had waived any reason to withhold full footage when publishing third-party produced segments .

“For the sake of transparency”

The sheriff’s office paid Cole’s two businesses at least $198,000 between August 2016 and February this year, according to invoices compiled by The Press Democrat.

His agency had about 628 employees in April, when Essick requested more than $192 million for his current budget from the oversight board.

Its budget is approved by the supervisors. The budget discussions did not reach a level of detail where supervisors discussed the sheriff’s outside vendors for public relations services, two supervisors said this week.

“Audiences should be able to see the raw, unvarnished video that exists,” supervisor Chris Coursey said in an interview ahead of Essick’s August 19 pledge to release the video within two weeks.

“For the sake of transparency, it’s a good thing to release everything when you release the type of sanitized release,” Coursey said. “Otherwise, people wonder what there is to hide.”

In a text message to The Press Democrat, board chairman James Gore said he was unfamiliar with the consultancy. He said he “appreciated that (the video) contextualized the situation without editorializing”, but would review the entire footage when released.

“If outsourcing allows the sheriff’s office to quickly disseminate information…I support that,” he wrote.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department, the county’s second-largest law enforcement agency, do not have standing contracts with outside public relations firms, officials say. two agencies.

Courses to outsmart journalists

Cole declined requests for telephone interviews. Instead, she sought to have a Press Democrat reporter tour her studio in Vacaville for a videotaped interview that she said would be used for “my work,” at conferences and on social media. The Press Democrat refused while repeatedly offering her the opportunity to participate in recorded telephone interviews.

Online, Cole markets a “no rotation” policy.

“We help civic entities communicate the facts about sensitive situations with an empathetic, fact-driven approach,” the Cole Pro Media website states. “We never tour – period. We help our clients be direct and socially connected in the heat of the moment. »

That wasn’t always Cole’s message, however. In May 2017, his company marketed a combative approach to media. “It’s time to take back control of mainstream media and spread the real stories,” Cole Pro Media’s Facebook page read that year, according to a report by the Modesto Bee.

The company also offered courses to “outsmart journalists”, according to the Bee and other news outlets.

Essick, however, maintained that his discussions with Cole centered on “transparency” and providing facts to the public. “If I was trying to spin something, she would call me,” he said.

In a February 2020 email to a North Carolina police chief describing her work, Cole wrote that she has contracted with more than 30 law enforcement agencies, including the office of the Sheriff, Vacaville Police Department, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Concord Police Department, and Watsonville Police. Department. A copy of the email was published by two independent journalism groups, The Appeal and The Vallejo Sun.

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