Rabbitt taps locals for law enforcement task force

After the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy on Oct. 22 incited public furor that has persisted for months, the county's Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force faces the daunting duty of rebuilding the public's trust in the police.

Two Petaluma residents, Todd Mendoza and Lynn King, were recently selected by Supervisor David Rabbitt to represent southern Sonoma County on the 21-member task force, which held its first meeting Jan. 13.

Lopez was walking in his Roseland neighborhood carrying an airsoft gun designed to look like an AK-47 assault rifle when Deputy Erick Gelhaus spotted him and assumed the gun was real. After Lopez didn't respond to Gelhaus' call to drop the gun, the deputy shot the teenager seven times. Soon after the shooting, public protest began to boil across Santa Rosa, as people demanded Gelhaus be charged criminally for the death. While the Petaluma Police Department was called to investigate the shooting, members of the public remained skeptical that any police agency would properly investigate a fellow officer.

To help inspire the public's trust in the investigation process, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisor's created the community task force to study different areas of community relations. The group is specifically charged with exploring the development of a citizen review board to oversee officer-involved shootings and bring transparency to the murky law enforcement investigation process, among other goals.

Each of the county's five supervisors appointed three members to the task force, who will join representatives selected by the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office and mayor of Santa Rosa. Two of Rabbitt's selections, King and Santa Rosa resident Jeanne Buckley, bring a strong legal background while Mendoza raised his children in the very same Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa where Lopez lived and died.

"He (Mendoza) certainly has, I think, a perspective from the Hispanic side as well as the community at large," Rabbitt said.

Mendoza, a Realtor and branch manager at Coldwell Banker in Petaluma, has a long history of community engagement. He is a past president of the Sonoma County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was a founding member of the Sonoma County Latino Leaders (Los Cien) and still serves on the Latino Advisory Committee established by Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas. He is also a former member of the Roseland School District board, state director of the California Association of Realtors and president of the Petaluma Council of Realtors. He said while many Latinos are skeptical of law enforcement's action related to the Lopez shooting, it's an issue that plagues the entire Sonoma County community, including Petaluma.

"It goes way beyond that, but there is definitely a distrust in the Latino community. I think we (the task force) can help rebuild that trust," Mendoza said. "This is a positive step. We have a very unique opportunity to make a difference in our community and I appreciate that."

King, a longtime Petaluma resident and former attorney, will help provide clarity on the legal process as many of the issues in front of the task force will require an understanding of the law. She also has spent years working with youth, from serving as a volunteer coordinator at Petaluma Junior High School to director at Tomorrow's Leaders Today, a nonprofit designed to encourage civic engagement in young people.

"I knew it was going to be a lot of work, it's not a process that's going to be over quickly," King said of the task force.

Buckley was named Juvenile Court Judge of the Year by the California Judges Association in 1995, and earned the Judge Star Award for Excellence in Family Law from the Sonoma County Bar Association in 1998.

While the board of supervisors had asked for a recommendation within 60 days on the most involved goal of the task force, the citizen review board, King said flatly, "It's not going to happen."

The task force will review a wide swath of models used around the state and country to bring citizen oversight into the internal law enforcement process. Once the task force hones in on the models they deem effective, they will have to determine how such an idea could be implemented in Sonoma County.

The task force will also look into whether the Sonoma County Coroner's Office should be separated from the Sheriff's Department to avoid perceived conflicts of interest; consider community policing programs; and provide the board of supervisors with feedback on the community outreach programs conducted by county staff.

King pointed out that any ideas the task force has will be implemented on the county level and affect the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, not city police forces. "The cities within the county, they're not bound by anything the county puts in place. It's up to each department to buy in, or not," King said. "We are trying to create something that everyone can buy into."

The task force meetings are open to the public. The next meeting takes place Monday, Jan. 27, at 6 p.m. at a location to be determined. Call 565-5368 for more information.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)