Supervisors respond to youth's shooting by launching task force
Published: Monday, December 16, 2013 at 4:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 16, 2013 at 4:19 p.m.
In an effort to address rampant public concern over the shooting death of a 13 year old by a Sheriff's deputy, on Tuesday the Board of Supervisors approved a charter for county-wide task force that will explore the formation of an independent citizen review board to examine police activities, among other goals.
This isn't the first time the board has considered bringing citizens into the often-opaque police investigation process. Similar committees have been discussed after other officer-involved deaths in recent years, but never came to fruition.
The Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force will include 21 members, three from each supervisor's district, three from the Sheriff's Department, two appointed by the mayor of Santa Rosa and one from the District Attorney's office. Petaluma's representative, 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt, said he's waiting to make his appointments until he sees who else is on the task force, explaining that he wants to select demographics that aren't otherwise represented in the group. A few members were announced on Tuesday, but Rabbitt said he expects the task force won't be finalized until January.
On Oct. 22, Andy Lopez, 13, was carrying an airsoft BB gun that closely resembled an AK-47 assault riffle as he walked down Moorland Avenue in Santa Rosa. After receiving calls about a young man with a gun, Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the department, mistook the toy gun as real, and shot Lopez seven times when he didn't immediately respond to police orders. The Petaluma Police Department is assisting the Santa Rosa Police Department in investigating the shooting, which is ongoing.
In the weeks following the shooting, Santa Rosa has seen myriad protests as the public seeks answers as to how, and why, the death occurred, and what's being done to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Protestors have also demanded that Gelhaus be prosecuted for his role in the shooting, which reached a boiling point Tuesday night when dozens swarmed the Sonoma County Jail and pounded on the window until it broke, leading to two arrests. It's a phenomenon that has not made its way to Petaluma, said Rabbitt and Petaluma Lt. Mike Cook.
“I haven't heard much angst (from Petaluma) compared to what I'm hearing from Roseland,” Rabbitt said on Monday.
Cook added, “We've had just a few parents call to ask what (toy guns) are allowed, and what are not.”
In addition to serving as a sounding board for community concerns and ideas, the task force will assess the feasibility of establishing an independent citizens' review committee to oversee incidents like officer-involved deaths; explore types of community policing to improve relations with law enforcement; and determine whether the office of the coroner should be elected separately from the Sheriff's Department.
Rabbitt said the task force's exploration of a citizen review committee would be a work in progress. Once convened, the group will research four different models of oversight boards utilized in other cities that have worked to integrate the public into the investigative process, thus bolstering transparency of law enforcement activity.
“I think we'll get something moving forward, but at this point I don't know what that will be,” Rabbitt said. “I think it will be a continuation of what we've been doing as a county since the shooting, which is a lot of soul-searching.”
Community policing is something Petaluma has already implemented with successful results. After significant budget cuts in 2008 forced the department to roll back its staffing levels, Chief Patrick Williams turned to the community for support by launching his Petaluma Policing campaign earlier this year. From utilizing volunteers in the office to training neighborhood watch groups to keep an eye out, the police department said engaging the community has proven beneficial for both law enforcement and residents. For example, a program that keeps officers connected to one specific area for two years has given police a greater understanding of Petaluma's neighborhoods.
“And neighbors have an officer they know and can talk to (more easily),” said Cook, who is leading the community policing effort for the Petaluma Police Department.
When asked if he thought it was feasible to implement such a program on a county-wide scale, Cook said it all comes down to resources and whether the county can find the funds needed to properly implement the time-consuming programs that require extensive training for both officers and volunteers.
The task force will also consider separating the county coroner as a unit of the Sheriff's Department, since critics have argued that officer-involved deaths like Lopez's cannot be properly investigated by the coroner because of a perceived conflict of interest.
During its Dec. 3 meeting, the supervisors also approved the purchase of lapel cameras for 250 Sonoma County Sheriffs Deputy at a cost of $250,000. The cameras are expected to bring greater transparency to police efforts. Rabbitt said the board had not yet identified the funding source to pay for the cameras. Petaluma Lt. Tim Lyons said there is no funding available to implement lapel cameras locally.
The board of supervisors also plans to explore expanding its outreach efforts in the community, look for ways to bring more diversity to its committees and consider legislation that would allow the county to regulate the use and sale of toy guns such as the one Lopez carried.
(Contact Emily Charrier at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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