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Santa Rosa police seek to mend fences with forum

Andy Lopez.

Published: Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 9:11 p.m.

Ana Salgado lives in an area of Santa Rosa on West Ninth Street that has struggled with gang activity and draws frequent police patrols.

Salgado said she worries partly about that law enforcement presence and the safety of her children, recalling a sheriff's deputy's fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez last year in another troubled Santa Rosa neighborhood to the south.

Authorities have sought to address such concerns in the six months that have elapsed since the shooting, opening up difficult conversations about ethnic and cultural divides and gaps in trust between law enforcement and residents.

Salgado said efforts by law enforcement have a long way to go.

“The police have a hard time (ahead of them) getting the confidence of the community back,” she said last week at a meeting with members of the Santa Rosa Police Department. She called the gathering a starting point.

Salgado was among more than 120 people, mostly Latino and from Santa Rosa, who attended Wednesday's event at Cook Middle School, where Lopez was once a student. Many of those present echoed Salgado's concerns and raised other issues, including how officer-involved shootings are handled and a lack of Spanish-speaking officers in Latino areas of town.

Attendees included students from Cook Middle School, Elsie Allen High School and Roseland University Prep. Teachers and parents from the schools also turned out, along with a smattering of residents from around the county.

They sat down in small circles with one of 12 representatives of the Santa Rosa Police Department, including Interim Chief Hank Schreeder, command staff, a dispatch supervisor and police officers who work in the area.

The event was organized by a subcommittee of the task force formed by Sonoma County after Lopez's death. He was shot on a sidewalk near his Moorland Avenue home Oct. 22 by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who reportedly mistook the BB gun the boy was carrying for a real assault rifle.

Wednesday's meeting was the first of six that task force members plan to hold around the county with local law enforcement agencies and the public. Organizers hope the conversational format will become a model for discussions that can continue after the task force concludes its work at the end of the year.

“Healing is a process that starts with learning to see each other not as enemies to be feared but as fellow human beings,” subcommittee chairwoman Judy Rice said at the beginning of the evening.

Wariness of law enforcement, however, was palpable from the start of the nearly three-hour forum, when one man stood up and said, in Spanish then English, “If you're going to make a meeting about peace, we'd like to see police officers come without their guns.”

Schreeder said his department had discussed the issue, but decided it was important for the community to interact with officers dressed the same way they'd see them on the street.

“We thought it was important to see beyond the badge to the person wearing it,” Schreeder said.

While Lopez was shot by a sheriff's deputy patrolling the West Moorland neighborhood, the Santa Rosa Police Department and CHP patrol nearby areas, and police have had tense confrontations in recent months with people protesting Lopez's killing. Rice said the first forum included Santa Rosa police, rather than the Sheriff's Office, simply because the event grew out of a conversation that she had with Schreeder.

Future events will likely include the Sheriff's Office, she said.

The initial tension eased over the course of the meeting, especially when people started talking with the officers in their groups.

Many asked pointed questions, such as why many officers ultimately keep their jobs after fatally shooting civilians.

Some wanted to see a more concerted effort on the part of the police department to engage one-on-one with residents through officers on foot who walk regular beats.

Others asked why there weren't more Latino or Spanish-speaking officers in predominantly Latino areas of town. Police representatives responded that they would like to have more Spanish-speaking officers as well, but that it is hard to recruit them. One group suggested the Spanish-speaking community hold workshops to teach police officers “emergency Spanish.”

One person asked Capt. Craig Shwartz if the Santa Rosa police held internal meetings about procedures since the Lopez shooting.

On a weekly basis, Schwartz said.

A man asked how the police department was preparing for the proposed annexation of the Roseland area. Would the area fall under one police beat, he asked.

Schwartz said the department is planning for it, conducting staffing studies to see if the area would fall under one beat or need to be divided up.

Perhaps the most common refrain was that people wanted to see more meetings like the one being held.

Police replied that they already hold numerous community events, but often, few people show up.

“From my perspective, this isn't a policing problem; it's a community problem that police are a part of,” Officer Mike Tosti told his group.

A woman who identified herself as Blanca replied in Spanish: “With our community background, we don't trust police. How can you guys gain our trust?”

“It's a hard question,” Tosti said after thinking for a moment. “It begins here, it starts with a relationship.”

“We know this is the beginning of a series of conversations that quite honestly will last for years,” said Oscar Chavez, assistant director of the county's Human Services Department and an organizer of the event. “We can only move at the speed of trust.”

The next forum is scheduled to take place in May, likely in the west county, though organizers are still working out the details.

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5205.

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