By Kelsey Vero Member of NBOP's Police Accountability Task Force
At 6:30 pm on Saturday, July 29 in Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, the family of David Pelaez Chavez will host a vigil marking the first anniversary of David’s death at the hands of a Sheriff’s Deputy.
“What happened to my brother is being forgotten,” says José Pelaez, David’s brother. “And we don’t want his story to be forgotten.” David’s family will be joined by members of the North Bay Organizing Project’s (NBOP) Police Accountability Task Force, faith and community leaders, and members of the public. The gathering will honor David’s life, share the family's story, and renew the call for justice which has so far been denied.
The Unjust Killing of David Pelaez Chavez
“Me van a matar / They are going to kill me.” – David Pelaez Chavez
On July 29, 2022, immigrant worker David Pelaez Chavez was recorded on a bodyworn camera saying these words in Spanish. In the hills of Knights Valley, CA, two Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputies closed in on his position and each drew a weapon, one a taser and the other a gun. Though David held a large rock and some garden and household tools throughout the chase, through multiple encounters he made no motion to use them.
We saw a man who was not thinking clearly, who was exhausted, who did not speak the same language as the Deputies, and who was justifiably frightened. In a final encounter, David was held at gunpoint while commands were yelled at him in English. The rock he had been holding slipped from his hands and he bent to the ground. Deputy Anthony Powers fired his taser just as shots rang out. Deputy Michael Dietrick had opened fire, and David Pelaez Chavez fell, where he was later declared dead.
A Public Cry for Justice
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the North Bay Organizing Project organized a public vigil, where David’s family shared moving stories of his life as a father, husband, brother and son – a sharp contrast to the caricature being portrayed in press statements and on social media at the time.
Simultaneously, the Sheriff’s Office published statements and media to assassinate David’s character, including misleading official statements, euphemisms, and “strategic editing” of bodycam footage painting David as a dangerous criminal in order to justify the actions of law enforcement. Cole Pro Media, PR firm the Sheriff hired to create selective and editorialized videos using bodycam footage – has repeatedly been used by law enforcement agencies after police misconduct to tell the Sheriff's Deputies’ accounts of what happened. This narrative manipulation forces the public to piece together the side of the story that can no longer be told by the victim.
The behavior of the Deputies that day characterizes the disparity between the laws and policies in place and the practice of law enforcement. The following are a set of policies designed to prevent excessive force and unwarranted killing of civilians by police:
The 2019 law Assembly Bill No. 392, known as the California Act To Save Lives, mandates that deadly force can only be used by Law Enforcement Officers to “defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” or “if the officer reasonably believes that the person will cause death or serious bodily injury to another unless the person is immediately apprehended,”
The SOCO policy on Taser Use, the SOCO Use of Force policy, and The California Act to Save Lives make it clear that force is not justified merely to apprehend a fleeing subject without the threat of violence.
The California Act to Save Lives and the SOCO Use of Force Policy state that the “Reasonableness" of the use of force will be determined from the perspective of a reasonable deputy on scene at the time of the incident.”
We believe the warning signs that David would not be able to comply were clearly demonstrated in the bodycam footage that day. In the video we also see a marked difference in approach and actions taken by the two Deputies, including the final choice of what weapon to fire – taser or gun. This contrast calls into question the “reasonableness” of the deadly force used, and if a person’s life hangs in the balance of which officer gets to them first. What is conspicuously missing from the footage is any evidence that David was a threat to anyone.
A Badge is Not a License to Kill
In the wake of David’s killing, our community has witnessed failures in the systems designed to investigate and hold officers and policing systems accountable.
California Assembly Bill 1506, The Deadly Force Accountability Act passed in 2020, requires the Attorney General to investigate any Law Enforcement shooting of an unarmed civilian. Before even seeing the video evidence, Attorney General Rob Bonta decided not to investigate, a move which drew public criticism and caused further amendments to the recent law to be considered in order to mandate investigations.
Instead, the public is expected to trust as law enforcement agencies investigate each other, starting with the Santa Rosa Police Department’s investigation and ending with the District Attorney. The lead investigator in the DA’s office, Richard Celi, is a former law enforcement officer who has also been investigated for shooting unarmed civilians. It has recently been reported that there has been a “use of force expert” brought in, but who that is or what their expertise is not made public. The 2020 Fact Sheet for the Deadly Force Accountability Act (AB 1506) notes “the current process of local district attorneys investigating local police is fraught with bias and conflicts of interest.”
Enough Review. It’s Time for DA Rodriguez to Prosecute
One year later, the family is still waiting to hear if Sonoma County’s District Attorney Carla Rodrigez will file charges in a criminal case, or if the lethal force used to take their loved one will be deemed “justified,” as was the last killing by Deputy Dietrick. The DA’s office has a guideline of 90 days to review a case and make a decision, but DA Rodriguez will have had this case for 206 days by the upcoming anniversary of the fatal encounter. We call on District Attorney Rodrigez to share the conclusions of her office’s investigation, so that the complete facts of the case can finally be known.
“It will be one year since they killed my brother and we still don't have answers,” David’s brother Jose Pelaez shared in a recent conversation with NBOP. “We’ve heard nothing, not even a response. It affects us so much, It’s very painful, it affects our family very much. I don’t know what's going on. We want justice for my brother.“
The delay threatens simultaneous accountability efforts, forcing existing cases to proceed without complete information. These cases include the family’s wrongful death lawsuit, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) investigation into any misconduct, and the Sheriff’s Internal Affairs investigation. Since the fatal shooting of David in 2022, the involved Deputies have returned to regular duties from administrative leave, marking nine months without any discipline, further training, or policy changes.
The North Bay Organizing Project remains committed to raising awareness about the systems designed to protect us, and who they are actually protecting. We refuse to forget, or accept, the impact of state violence on our families and our larger community. We invite others to join us in calling for transparency and accountability, seeking justice for David Pelaez Chavez, and in working for a just future where no family will face this kind of loss again.
The North Bay Organizing Project – The North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP) is a multiracial, multi-issue, grassroots organization comprised of more than twenty religious, environmental, labor, student, and community organizations in Sonoma County. NBOP seeks to build a regional power organization rooted in working class and communities of color in the North Bay.