Friends of Lafferty Park letter to the Sonoma County Sheriff regarding the Sheriff Dept.'s response to our January and February "Walk to the Park" events.

March 5, 2002

Sheriff Jim Piccinini
Sonoma County Sheriff's Department
600 Administration Drive, Room 103J
Santa Rosa, CA  95403

Dear Sheriff Piccinini:

I write to raise questions about the Sheriff's Department's response to our march to the gate of Lafferty Park on February 24, 2002.  First, a little background information is necessary.

The Nature of the Events

I am a member of Friends of Lafferty Park (FLP), an all-volunteer citizens group working to help open that public parkland on Sonoma Mountain.  I was also a lead organizer of FLP's two "Walk to the Park" marches from downtown Petaluma to the closed gate of Lafferty Park on January 13 and February 24, 2002.  The purpose of these walks to raise awareness of the need for Sonoma County to cooperate with the City of Petaluma in opening this magnificent property for public enjoyment.

The January 13 Event

For the January event, I notified all three police agencies which might have jurisdiction over our march route -- Petaluma PD, CHP, and Sheriff's Dept. -- of our plans several days in advance.  At the last minute, we learned a county special event permit might be required, and we took steps to keep our numbers below the level where a permit would be necessary.  By all accounts, both the road walk and our brief rally by around 50 people at the locked Lafferty gate proceeded in an entirely lawful manner.  A CHP officer on the scene was quoted in the January 16 Argus-Courier as saying the event was "totally legal and very orderly," and that no laws were broken.

During our brief rally, we were informed by Sheriff's Deputies that some portion of the small strip of unfenced land where we stood, between the road and Lafferty's gate, is claimed by neighbors Peter Pfendler and Al Bettman. We responded that we do not recognize the validity of that claim, and that our position is based both on the results of a boundary survey conducted by Petaluma, and by virtue of 125 years of historic access to the Lafferty property from that point of the road, as shown in official maps.  The Sheriff's Deputies then acknowledged that the neighbors' claim to private ownership of the strip was (at best) not clear-cut, and declined to enforce it, saying it is not their policy to enforce trespassing claims on disputed land.  About that time, our rally concluded and our vans began to arrive to shuttle people back to town.

The January 18 Agreement

A few days after the January walk, on Friday, January 18, an FLP colleague (Bruce Hagen) and myself attended a meeting called by Petaluma City Manager Fred Stouder and Police Chief Pat Parks with representatives of the three police agencies.  Present, in addition to Parks, Stouder, and Jim Carr of Petaluma's Parks & Rec Department, were Commander Larry O'Shea and Lt. Dan Moore of the CHP, Lt. Mike Cook of the Petaluma PD, and Sgt. Brett Sackett of the Sheriff's Department.  All of these law enforcement officials, with the exception of Chief Parks, had been present at the culmination of our walk at the Lafferty gate on January 13.

At that January 18 meeting, we agreed to continue our emphasis on keeping events lawful and orderly, and to build mutual trust by keeping one another informed of our plans for future events.  (For the record, it was also agreed that the police agencies would not attempt to recover from FLP the cost of police services which, incidentally, we have never requested, as long as the events are lawful.  Having researched this further since that meeting, I would prefer that standard be "peaceful," or "peaceable" as in the First Amendment, rather than "lawful," but that is a discussion for another time.)

The February 24 Event

For February 24 event we obtained special event permits from both the City of Petaluma and Sonoma County.   Other than a larger group of participants (around 100), this event followed the same format as the January march. FLP's safety monitors were very careful to keep the march safe and orderly, and see that all pedestrian laws were observed.  For reasons of their own, Petaluma PD and CHP officers chose to escort us along much of the route.

A few days before the 24th, I phoned my contact at the Sheriff's Dept., Sgt. Brett Sackett, as a courtesy in the spirit of our January 18 agreement. Sgt. Sackett informed me that he was no longer assigned to this event, and that my contact in the future would be Sgt. Dave Anderson.  Sgt. Sackett said he would forward my message to Sgt. Anderson, and I thought no more about what seemed a simple administrative change.

Our first indication that the Sheriff's Department's response had changed from the previous month was an overflight by a Sheriff's Dept. helicopter, which circled above us several times, close enough to allow the word "SHERIFF" to be read clearly on the tail, when we were about 0.5 mile from Lafferty on Sonoma Mountain Road.

Arriving at the Lafferty gate area, we saw, in addition to the Petaluma PD and CHP officers that had been leap-frogging and escorting us along the route, a larger contingent of Sheriff's Deputies and vehicles than we had seen in January, including a van labeled "Crime Scene Investigations Unit," or words to that effect.  As we conducted our rally, several Deputies photographed our faces from a few yards away (across the road) with video and still cameras.

At the conclusion of the rally, several people, including a Petaluma City Councilmember, an Argus-Courier reporter, and myself, spoke to Sgt. Anderson at some length.  He repeatedly referred to the disputed strip in front of the gate as "private property," and to our presence there as "trespassing." We objected to these characterizations as an unfounded presumption of guilt based on the allegations of just one party to a dispute, but he persisted. At that time we all understood him to say his officers were filming us to gather evidence for Pfendler and Bettman to use if they decided to press trespassing charges against us, and to identify us.

Later that evening, I phoned Sgt. Anderson and continued our conversation. At that point, he told me that he commanded the Sheriff's Tactical Unit, and that five of his 21 Tac Unit officers were with him on the mountain that afternoon.  He also clarified his earlier remarks about filming, saying the films would be kept within the Sheriff's Department unless and until trespassing charges were filed and the DA decided to prosecute, at which point they would become evidence, available to all parties.

My Questions:

  1. Taken together, we feel the presence of the helicopter, the increased number of Sheriff's Deputies and vehicles, and the assignment of the Tactical Unit personnel and commander constitute a significant escalation of the Sheriff Department's response at the February event compared to the January event.  While I don't presume to question how you use your personnel and resources, I do feel this escalation violates the spirit of the January 18 agreement, at which your department was represented, to build trust and keep one another informed of plans.  Do you recognize any obligation to keep our citizens' group informed of your plans under the January 18 agreement? If so, how will that obligation express itself to us in the future?
  2. We object to Sgt. Anderson's repeated characterizations of disputed land as "private property" and our presence there as "trespassing," particularly when a member of the press was present.  We ask that Sgt. Anderson retract this statements, and his presumption of our guilt, in writing to us.  Why does the Sheriff's department take the side, in word and deed, of Pfendler and Bettman in their dispute with the people of Petaluma?
  3. Many event participants felt the videotaping of our event from close range, expressly for the purpose of identifying participants, had a chilling effect on our "right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," in the words of the First Amendment.  How do you respond to this concern?
  4. Many members of the public must be wondering, what are all those Sheriff's Deputies are doing up there in the first place?  They have no responsibility for road safety -- that belongs to the CHP.  Our events are orderly and peaceful, and we have lived up to our agreement to keep police agencies fully informed of our plans.  There is absolutely no reason to think our group, which includes children and elders, constitutes any danger whatsoever to anyone or to any private property on Sonoma Mountain.  Is your only purpose there, as appears to be the case, to defend Pfendler's and Bettman's highly dubious claim on a few square feet of grass blocking the way to the public's land at Lafferty Park?   Is this the best use of our law enforcement personnel and taxpayer funds?

I look forward to your response at your earliest convenience.


Larry Modell

Larry Modell
for Friends of Lafferty Park
(707) 778-0629

Chief Pat Parks and Lt. Mike Cook, Petaluma PD
Cmdr. Larry O'Shea and Lt. Dan Moore, CHP
Sgt. Brett Sackett and Sgt. Dave Anderson, Sheriff's Dept.
Fred Stouder, Petaluma City Manager, and Jim Carr, Petaluma Parks and Rec Director
Friends of Lafferty Park website and email list
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Mike Kerns, Chairman
Jayashri Srikantiah, Northern California ACLU
Pete Golis, Editor, Press Democrat
Chris Samson, Editor, Argus-Courier

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