Supervisors respond to youth's shooting by launching task force

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."

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