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Velvet Cannabis to Provide 24/7 On-site Security in Wake of Officer-Involved Shooting
Police chief says dispensary owner has agreed to comply with requirement of city's cannabis ordinance; city marks 15th anniversary of Sgt. Paul Starzyk's death; MRC launches new website
Velvet Cannabis has agreed to start staffing its dispensary on Sunrise Drive with security guards around the clock after last month’s officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of a 20-year-old man, police Chief Andrew White said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. The shooting occurred after police responded to a suspected burglary at the dispensary.
White said he and City Manager Michael Chandler had recently met with the dispensary’s operators to ask for the change, which is already required in the city’s cannabis ordinance. They plan to do the same with the city’s other dispensary, Embarc, on Alhambra Avenue.
White told the council that the specifics surrounding the 24-hour on-site security will be included in Velvet’s updated security plan, which is confidential. The city’s cannabis ordinance calls for at least two security officers to be on site of any dispensary 24 hours a day.
“It was made clear our position that what is in the ordinance is how it should be at this point,” White said.
Why the ordinance requirement wasn’t followed and enforced previously remains a mystery; the decision to grant Velvet and Embarc exemptions from the requirement was made under the leadership of a previous city manager and police chief (I asked during public comment Wednesday that the city initiate an internal review into the matter).
In response to a previous inquiry from me, City Manager Michael Chandler provided the following explanation based on his research into the issue:
"I learned that our prior Police Department command staff collaborated separately in 2019-2020 with Velvet – and then in 2021 with Embarc – on their respective security plans (which are confidential of course, for very legitimate safety reasons). Notwithstanding what the ordinance says to the contrary, the Police command staff at those times supported the position that the dispensaries would not provide 24-hour on-site security guards, but instead use other means of surveillance (primarily remote video) to monitor these premises after hours. The Police command staff’s position at the time included concerns for the safety of any security guards left on site after hours.”
Velvet did not respond to an email request I sent several weeks ago asking why it hadn’t complied with the ordinance requirement for 24/7 on-site security.
Resident Ben Therriault, who ran unsuccessfully for Contra Costa County sheriff and Martinez City Council last year, spoke during public comment Wednesday about his own experiences responding to crimes at cannabis-related businesses as a Richmond police officer, and the need for proper security measures.
“As someone who has responded to these types of calls in other cities, commercial burglaries of marijuana dispensaries and grows are very serious things and they happen all the time, and usually people show up with weapons, sometimes a lot more than handguns; they show up with rifles and the like,” he said. “These are things that are becoming a trend in the Bay Area and regionally, and unfortunately, it seems like Martinez is no different.”
None of the council members addressed the discrepancy between the ordinance requirement for 24/7 on-site security and the lack of such at Velvet and Embarc during their comments Wednesday. Mark Ross and Debbie McKillop are the only members remaining from the council that approved the ordinance in 2019. Ross was absent from the April 3, 2019, meeting where the ordinance was officially approved, and McKillop voted no.
According to the official 2019 minutes from the council meetings where the ordinance was debated, McKillop and Ross both opposed it because of how the term “youth center” was defined in the provision of the ordinance that restricts where dispensaries can be located near. It was defined as facilities that were “exclusively” used to host activities for minors; Velvet’s approval was controversial at the time because of its location next to the former Power Endurance athletic facility whose clientele included youths.
The 24/7 on-site security requirement was not discussed by the council or staff, according to the minutes from the March 20 and April 3 meetings where the ordinance was presented and voted on.
The ordinance was approved by former Mayor Rob Schroder and former council members Lara DeLaney and Norealea Gipner.
Whether the presence of security guards on the night of Aug. 18 would have prevented the sequence of events that led to the fatal police shooting of Tahmon Wilson is unknown, and likely will remain so even after the California Department of Justice completes its independent investigation into the Aug. 18 use of lethal force by the four Martinez police officers who have since been placed on leave. As I reported in a previous post, prior to the officer-involved shooting, there were 10 previous burglary-related calls since 2020 to Velvet’s address.
At Wednesday’s meeting, White also gave a brief update on the DOJ investigation.
“It is not expected that the DOJ will release much, if any, information regarding the progress of their investigation or the findings along the way,” said White, adding that the eventual public report on the incident will contain that agency’s “determinations regarding the lawfulness of the use of force of each officer as well as their findings and recommendations regarding the policies and practices of our police department.”
White, who reiterated that he “unequivocally” supports the independent investigation, added: “We do not control the timing of this investigation. However, we are responding to all requests by DOJ in a timely manner so as not to delay their work.”
In addition to the DOJ investigation, the city has hired an outside firm to conduct an administrative review of the incident and whether the officers complied with Martinez Police Department policies and procedures. White also said Wednesday that his department is working with the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office on investigating any “collateral or peripheral” crimes related to the initial police call, via video alarm, to Velvet that night.
Wednesday’s council meeting took place on the 15th anniversary of the last officer-involved shooting in the city, which also claimed the life of police Sgt. Paul Starzyk when he responded to a domestic violence-related shooting at a hair salon on Pacheco Boulevard. In this case, Starzyk and another officer exchanged gunfire with the suspect, who was also killed.
A memorial event was held Wednesday morning to mark the anniversary of Starzyk’s death, and it was mentioned by several council members on Wednesday night. Ross also recognized Catalina Torres, a part-time worker at the salon who was killed by the same gunman who shot Starzyk during the 2008 tragedy.
“In the event we’re talking about now, and in the event 15 years ago, these are responses to events happening in our community,” he said. “Even twice in 15 years is too much, but they do happen. And there are victims, in every sense of the word, and there are tragedies, and we shouldn’t forget any of them.”
Council members also briefly addressed the ongoing investigation into the Aug. 18 police shooting at Velvet.
“We’ve got to trust the process,” Councilman Satinder Malhi said. “There’s two independent, parallel investigations now underway. We’ve got to give the space for those to happen.”
Added Mayor Brianne Zorn: “I think it’s really important that we are transparent with our community so that everybody knows what’s going on and that we’ll be giving updates to our community as soon as information becomes available.”
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Other items of note from Wednesday’s council meeting:
Martinez Refining Co. representative Brandon Matson spoke during public comment to update the council on the refinery’s latest efforts to boost communications with the community in the wake of several incidents at the refinery starting with the Thanksgiving night “spent catalyst” release. Matson said the refinery has launched a new website, MartinezRefiningCompany.com, and also plans to publish periodic newsletters, both digital and in print (residents can sign up for them on the website). He also said the refinery plans to provide quarterly updates at council meetings about its operations.
Assistant City Manager Lauren Sugayan announced that the city website at CityofMartinez.org now includes a translation feature. In addition to English, content on the site can now be read in Spanish, Chinese and Filipino. When visiting the site, residents will see flag icons at the bottom right-hand side of the home page. They can click on the flag corresponding with the language they prefer (the U.S. flag corresponds with English).
The council held a study session before Wednesday’s regular council meeting on the latest draft plan to renovate and upgrade the waterfront and marina (look for a separate post on that meeting sometime in the next week or so). The videos for both the study session and regular meeting can be viewed at this link: https://www.cityofmartinez.org/government/meetings-and-agendas
CC Health to host suicide prevention workshop Wednesday
Contra Costa Health Services will host a suicide prevention workshop and care package-assembly event on Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 2 to 5 p.m., at Vicente High School, 925 Susana St. The event is being held in recognition of Suicide Prevention Week and will include volunteers creating “personalized boxes filled with tools and reminders that provide support to people during challenging times.” The event is also being sponsored by the nonprofit group Find Your Anchor. To register for Wednesday’s event, click this link.
Note: Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can dial the three-digit Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 to receive immediate help and assistance.
Martinez shoreline partial closure through November
A portion of Radke Martinez Shoreline Regional Park is expected to remain closed through November for irrigation replacement work. All facilities within the closed area, including the parking lot, restrooms, playgrounds and picnic areas, will be unavailable during the project. A map of the enclosed area can be found by clicking this link. According to the East Bay Regional Park District, alternative parking and restrooms remain available at Grangers’ Wharf and Waterfront Park. For more information, go to https://www.ebparks.org/parks/radke-martinez
Martinez school board meeting Monday
The Martinez Unified School District Board of Trustees meets on Monday, Sept. 11, starting at 6:30 p.m. Agenda items of note include a discussion of the Student Led Antiracism Movement (SLAM) and an update to the district’s attendance boundary policies to allow sibling students to remain together on the same campus when one student needs to be overloaded to a school outside of their attendance area because of a lack of space. The meeting agenda can be viewed by clicking this link.
New Facebook page for my newsletters
I’ve created a Facebook page for both Martinez News and Views and my personal Substack newsletter. I hope to use this page to engage residents and others about the topics I’m reporting and exploring in these newsletters. Feel free to like it here and join the conversation.