Many community members and activists issued a broad call for action on Tuesday as the Sonoma County Board of supervisors held its first public discussion of the fatal shooting on October 22nd of 13-year old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy.
The three hour meeting featured testimony from county supervisors, student leaders, representatives of the Latino community and others. Many said the fatal shooting represented a pivotal moment for Sonoma County, exposing chronic disparities in education and economic opportunity.
Supervisor Mike McGuire called the discussion a “hard look in the mirror”. “We cannot be silent about the gaps that exist in our neighborhoods,” he said “Silence has no place in this process.” Many of the speaker lobbied for strong community oversight of law enforcement, especially in cases of death caused by police use of force.
Citizens of Sonoma County including the world are now watching to see if local public officials take a stand for accountability, transparency and public trust” said Curtis Bryd, a Santa Rosa planning commissioner and city council candidate who comes from a family long active in civil rights issues.
The board endorsed several steps, including a study of civilian-review panels for officer-involved shootings, to be led by a task force of community leaders appointed from each supervisorial district.
Lopez an eighth-grader and son of Mexican immigrants, was shot and killed by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus when the Deputy apparently mistook the BB gun the boy was carrying, one made to look like an AK-47, for a real assault rifle. Gelhaus opened fire when Lopez didn’t immediately comply with an order to put the gun down and instead began turning toward the deputy. Gelhaus, a 24-year department veteran with extensive experience as a police weapons trainer, fired eight shots, hitting Lopez seven times. Lopez was killed in the same block on Moorland Avenue where he grew up, a mostly working class neighborhood in an unincorporated area of southwest Santa Rosa that residents and law enforcement say has had its problems with gang activity and other crime. It is one of the poorest and mostly heavily Latino areas in the county, according to school and census data.
Supervisor Susan Gorin came to tears describing her reaction to the shooting and its aftermath, marked by a continuous series of vigils and protests across Santa Rosa. The meeting also featured comments from several elected and appointed local officials, including Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley, Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Socorro Shields and Santa Rosa school board member Jenni Klose.
“While the incident did occur outside the city limits, we recognize the issue is not one defined by such arbitrary borders,” Bartley said, “We will, and must, learn and change.”
Andy’s parents have filed wrongful death claims against Sonoma County. The federal suit reportedly claims Gelhaus violated the boy’s Fourth Amendment rights, and that the county has an unconstitutional custom and practice regarding the use of deadly force. Attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who is representing Andy’s parents Rodrigo Lopez and Sujay Cruz, joined them at a news conference in San Francisco Monday and said Gelhaus was “reckless” in the shooting.
The lawsuit states that Gelhaus had a string of reckless incidents dating back to 1995, when he shot himself in the leg during a stop and search involving a teenager. Then a year later, he allegedly pointed his firearm at a woman who was holding her young son, reports the station.
Casillas said a witness who saw Andy just before the shooting, said the plastic gun was clearly a toy based on “the way he was holding it, the way he was swinging it,” as well as the fact that the 13-year old did not seem to pose a threat at only 5 feet and 4 inches tall and 140 pounds.
The family had a private autopsy done on Andy’s body that called into question Gelhaus’s version of events, in which he told investigators he fired after Andy raised the barrel of the rifle toward the deputies, reports the station. Casillas reportedly said the trajectory of the bullets that struck Andy show the boy did not point the gun at the deputies, and that Gelhaus continued firing after the first bullet went through Andy’s heart, causing him to fall to the ground. Rodrigo Lopez, the boy’s father spoke briefly about the case during Monday’s news conference. “We want justice and we also want an honest investigation,” he said.
The board is considering creating a civilian review board to look into local law and enforcement training and policies.