Shooting exposes need for change
Published: Monday, December 16, 2013 at 4:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 16, 2013 at 4:11 p.m.
The tragic shooting death of a 13-year-old boy in Santa Rosa by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy has raised a number of very troubling questions that demand answers and action. We’re encouraged that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, currently chaired by Petaluman David Rabbitt, has begun to take solid steps to find those answers, and look forward to the adoption of policy changes and possibly even a new law designed to prevent innocent children, and others, from being shot by law enforcement officers.
On Oct. 22, Andy Lopez was walking down the street in a low-income, mostly Hispanic neighborhood carrying an airsoft rifle when he was spotted by two sheriff’s deputies. Believing Lopez was carrying an AK 47 assault rifle, which the toy gun closely resembled, one of the deputies ordered the youth to drop the weapon. Within seconds, the youth lay dead with seven bullets in his body.
The grief and anguish felt by Andy’s family and friends has been matched by widespread public concern ranging from irrational demands by protestors that the deputy be prosecuted for murder, to more measured, yet urgent calls for a thorough review of the policies and training on the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers. Either way, county officials have begun doing everything they can to ensure something like this never happens again.
Among a long list of policy recommendations county supervisors reviewed last week was an obvious one: Support state and federal legislation on gun and replica weapon control. A state senator from Los Angeles has already pledged to reintroduce a bill that would require imitation firearms to be painted a bright color so they could not be mistaken for the real thing. Had such a law been in effect, Andy Lopez might still be alive today.
Unfortunately, powerful gun lobbyists, including the National Rifle Association, were successful in blocking a similar bill two years ago. Perhaps this time, legislators will have the guts to buck the gun lobby and do the right thing by passing the law. Call Assemblyman Marc Levine or State Senator Lois Wolk if you agree.
Another sensible policy county officials are poised to adopt is providing all law enforcement officers with lapel video cameras to record their actions while on duty. Not only would this practice enable deputies to be more effective in obtaining convictions against wrongdoers using videotape evidence, it would also be a strong deterrent against potential police abuse.
In the Lopez case, a videotape of the incident could help to answer the important question of whether the deputy who shot the boy, Erick Gelhaus, gave him adequate time to respond to the command to drop the weapon, and whether the command was clearly heard and understood by the victim before he was shot.
Gelhaus’ actions also call into question whether the department’s policy on the use of deadly force is appropriate, or should be revised to include suitable alternatives. A comprehensive review on the department’s lethal force training is planned that will give the public an opportunity to review and comment upon such policies.
There have been many officer-involved shooting deaths in Sonoma County in recent years. In all such cases, the investigations were done by a neighboring law enforcement agency and in every single case, the officers were found to have followed proper procedure and were cleared of any wrongdoing. Because many law enforcement officers in Sonoma County know one another, creating an informal fraternity, legitimate questions have been raised on whether such investigations can always be done objectively and thoroughly.
The Santa Rosa Police Department is currently investigating the Lopez shooting. Could a conflict of interest exist whereby evidence is altered to protect a fellow law enforcement officer from disciplinary action or prosecution? It’s highly unlikely. But as was seen earlier this week with the indictment of 18 Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies on abuse and conspiracy charges, there is no guarantee that all police officers will do the right thing all the time.
In 2000, following a spate of officer-involved fatal shootings, an advisory panel with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that Sonoma County establish a citizens review board to provide a more independent review of such fatalities. The County rejected the panel’s recommendation.
But in light of the Lopez shooting, Board of Supervisors are appointing a countywide citizens task force charged with recommending a model for an independent citizen review body to investigate officer-involved shootings. Given the administrative complexities, scope of its investigate power, unknown costs as well as legal restrictions which currently prevent such bodies’ deliberations from being open to the public, this is not an easy assignment.
The new task force will also be charged with making recommendations on community policing policies and whether the Office of Coroner should be separately elected from the Office of Sheriff. Currently, the sheriff and coroner’s offices are conjoined, which sets up a potential conflict of interest in cases of officer-involved fatal shootings.
Finally, in recognition of the gulf that exists between local law enforcement officials and the Latino community they serve, county officials have also pledged to step up cultural diversity training and recruitment in law enforcement staff, conduct a series of “town hall” meetings to, among other things, promote inclusion and rebuild community trust, and appoint more Latino leaders to serve on county boards and commissions.
Aside from the county’s obvious need to finally place a much higher emphasis on the recruitment and retention of Latino-American police officers, a broader effort to establish an ongoing dialogue with the Latino communities in Sonoma County has unlimited potential to build stronger relationships across cultural boundaries that continue to stand in the way of community building.
In the end, the tragic death of Andy Lopez will never be erased. But with sound leadership, effective communication and a shared commitment to an open process that produces practical ways to avoid such tragedies in the future, Sonoma County can come out a stronger, safer and more inclusive community.
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