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RIP Andy Lopez

OPINION: The Legacy of Andy Lopez

Apr 2, 2017
by Ron Rogers, Blue Coast Films LLC

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It has now been over three years since 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot and killed by Sonoma county deputy (now sergeant) Erick Gelhaus while Andy was walking in his Roseland neighborhood returning a toy replica gun to a friend. Despite this passage of time, Andy’s legacy remains unclear. Will the legacy of Andy Lopez be a permanent divide in Sonoma county between those who think the shooting was justified and those who do not? Or was the shooting a tipping point for the community to begin seeking common ground to achieve needed change?

For nearly three years, we have been working on a public affairs documentary about the Andy Lopez shooting and its impact on the people of Sonoma county. Although fatal police shootings are happening and reported in the news throughout the United States, this shooting has struck a deep cord here and affected people throughout the county. 

Over 40 in-depth interviews with county residents having wide-ranging perspectives have been filmed so far for the documentary, currently titled “Andy”. These include interviews with Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas,Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, several members of the Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council, attorneys, activists, educators, clergy, police officers, young people, members of the state legislature, city and county law enforcement auditors, friends of Andy, and others. We have also collected three years of archival footage, photographs, news reports, and other materials for use in the film. These interviews and other materials reveal that in Sonoma county -- like many other communities around the country -- concerns about police use of force, police-community relations, gun control, availability of replica guns, public official transparency and accountability, the independence of police shooting investigations, and other related issues are hotly debated and unlikely to go away any time soon.

We are trying to find out why the United States has a significantly higher number of fatal police shootings than other countries around the world.

Unfortunately, we are finding bias and misperceptions all around. Some see the videos of police shootings in the news and believe that all police officers use excessive force and are biased against minorities. Some public officials and police officers see the protests in the streets and in the media and believe that anyone who questions police conduct is anti-police. Neither is true.

Despite all this, we have discovered that the Andy Lopez shooting seems to have been a tipping point for Sonoma county, leading people on both sides of the issue to look for common ground to achieve change. Although not universally popular, initiatives like the hiring of auditors for the sheriff’s office and police department, the use of police body cams, progress on the annexation of Roseland, the creation of Andy’s Unity Park, and other efforts have arisen out of the tragedy. Whether these initiatives will bear fruit is yet to be known. But we have discovered that the struggle is to find answers and change the conditions that led to the shooting … or face the heart-breaking potential of the same tragedy happening again.

The filmmakers can only imagine what it was like for the Lopez family to lose 13-year-old Andy in such a violent way. We can see, though, that there has been a significant ripple effect throughout the county with a number of lives deeply and permanently affected. And three years later, the emotions are still very raw.

When released in the fall of 2017, the documentary will give a voice to both sides of the issue. The film may be criticized for not supporting one side over the other. But both sides have valid views and the lessons of that tragedy may not yet have been fully learned.

After nearly three years of filming and other work, the documentary is now at a point where associating a top-level film editor and other post-production elements are necessary to take the film to the level this compelling subject deserves. A fund-raiser to help finance the finishing of the documentary will take place on April 25 at Aqus Cafe in Petaluma, with a showing of a short trailer from the film and Q & A with the film’s director. With proper funding, this documentary – aimed at public television, film festivals, and community showings – will make a significant contribution to a constructive dialogue.

So, what is the legacy of Andy Lopez? We don’t yet know. But surely, it is worthwhile to find out.

 

Ron Rogers is a filmmaker based in Sonoma county and Producer with Blue Coast Films LLC, maker of public affairs documentaries.

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