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Law enforcement responds to dismissal of Douglas-Zanotti case

By Thadeus Greenson
The Eureka Times-Standard

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, Calif. - Over the outburst of applause, you could almost hear the sighs of relief.
Humboldt County Superior Court Judge John Feeney on Tuesday dismissed the unprecedented involuntary manslaughter charges facing former Eureka Police Chief David Douglas and Lt. Tony Zanotti, stemming from the 2006 police shooting death of Cheri Lyn Moore.
The ruling drew an outburst of applause in the courtroom. And it's a safe bet that police chiefs around the county, state and nation slept a little easier after Feeney's ruling.
"This case had a chilling effect throughout California," said Fresno Chief of Police Jerry Dyer, who also serves as president of the California Police Chiefs Association. "I can tell you that there were a number of law enforcement administrators across the United States watching this case very closely, and I'm sure they too will be relieved with the judge's decision because these types of actions on the part of the district attorney can, number one, set a bad precedent, and, number two, become contagious."
Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos convened a criminal grand jury in November 2007, which handed up the involuntary manslaughter indictments against Douglas and Zanotti for their decision-making roles in Moore's death.
Moore, who had a history of mental illness and was reportedly distraught over the anniversary of her son's death, brandished a flare gun, threw items out of the window of her second-story apartment and threatened to burn down the building during the more than two-hour standoff on April 14, 2006.
Officers have said they believed Moore had put down the flare gun when the order was given to storm her apartment. A SWAT team member said when officers breached her apartment door, Moore picked up the flare gun and pointed it at them. Moore was shot nine times and died at the scene.
Legal and police experts have called the indictments unprecedented, as they targeted the incident's commanders and not the officers who fired the fatal shots.
"Number one, this is unheard of in law enforcement for a police chief and a lieutenant to be indicted for a decision they made at a SWAT call," Dyer said. "It was so shocking that, initially, I didn't believe it. I figured there had to be more to the story for them to be indicted. But, there wasn't."
Arcata Police Chief Randy Mendosa said he knows Douglas and Zanotti and that it's been difficult to watch them endure the last nine months.
"I know these guys well enough where I know it's been devastating for them -- living in a small community and hearing comments; having your good reputation smeared before the public," Mendosa said. "It's terrible. It's not fair and it's not just."
Mendosa said he was also relieved for himself and for his profession.
"It could easily have been me in there," Mendosa said. "Being criminally indicted for basically being in charge of a high-risk operation is not something that police chiefs have ever encountered before, anywhere that I can find."
Many said they felt it was only a matter of time before they were tossed out of court.
"I don't think any of us believed from day one that there was sufficient evidence to criminally indict either former Chief Douglas or Lt. Zanotti for their actions," Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen said. "Their actions never came close to rising to the level of gross negligence."
Many law enforcement officials have also said they feared the indictments could have a lasting effect on commanders in tactical situations, pushing them to either protect the officers serving under them by taking decisions out of their hands or to protect themselves by leaving the decisions to those underneath them, thus protecting themselves from criminal liability.
The result, many have said, would be decisions being handed off to people who are not the most qualified to make them.
Dyer said he has a more basic fear.
"To second guess law enforcement leaders in a criminal court can cause paralysis of the leaders in the future because folks are going to be hesitant to make quick decisions even in instances that necessitate quick decisions," he said. "When hesitation occurs in law enforcement, officers can get seriously hurt or killed, and that's why you need decisive leaders at SWAT calls."

Wire Service
 
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