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Activists: After Andy Lopez Settlement, Community Still Hurts

Dec 22, 2018
by Will Carruthers

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At a closed-session meeting on Dec. 18, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors agreed unanimously to a $3 million settlement with the family of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2013.

Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot Lopez seven times on Moorland Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa, later claiming that he had mistaken the airsoft gun Lopez was carrying for a real weapon, since the toy’s orange tip had been removed.

At a press conference following the supervisors’ decision, Sheriff Rob Giordano said that the settlement was “the best [option] for everyone involved,” later adding that he hopes the settlement helps Lopez’s family move forward.

An undated picture of Andy Lopez.

"The bottom line is, a 13-year-old died, the deputy was cleared of all wrongdoing [by Sonoma CountyDistrict Attorney Jill Ravitch] and I understand why he did what he did," Giordano said.

But police oversight and accountability activists say that, five years after Lopez’s death, there are still open wounds in the community and that some of the few victories activists won appear to be in danger of being scaled back.

Response to Shooting

Following the shooting, residents and activists organized several major demonstrations calling for reform. One week after Lopez’s death, more than 1,000 people marched throughSanta Rosa chanting, “Andy Lopez did not have to die.”

In May 2015, the 21-member Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force sent a list of 20 recommended reforms to the Board of Supervisors meant to “achieve change in the relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the community.”

Two changes have been the formation of the Independent Office of Law EnforcementReview and Oversight (IOLERO) and the Sheriff’s Office’s purchase of a  use-of-force simulator, allowing deputies to practice different use-of-force scenarios in an immersive chamber with three video screens.

At the Dec. 18 press conference, Sheriff Giordano mentioned the use-of-force simulator but did not identify specific changes made to the Office’s use of force policy as a result of Lopez’s death.

Despite the changes he said have been made, Giordano stopped short of saying that officers would respond differently if they were faced with a replica gun again.

Sheriff Rob Giordano at a Dec. 18 press conference.

“The year I started [working as a law enforcement officer 29 years ago] I heard stories from around this country of people getting shot because they had a fake weapon and it looked like a real weapon,” Giordano said. “That’s not going to change until those (fake guns that look real) aren’t out there and those aren’t brandished at people.”

Susan Lamont, a local social justice activist who worked with theJustice Coalition for Andy Lopez in the past, questioned the Sheriff’s reasoning. Although it’s not a good idea to carry a replica gun, it shouldn’t be a death sentence, Lamont said. 

“We live in a culture where guns are glorified – toy stores are full of them – yet when children buy them, it’s their fault,” Lamont said. “[Children] are in a hard place culturally.”

Giordano said that the Sheriff’s Office does not have an official program discouraging the purchase of toy and replica guns.

Future of Law Enforcement Oversight Uncertain

A week after the Lopez’s death, Robert Edmonds, a police-accountability activist, called for police oversight but predicted tensions between the police and oversight agencies.

"Police say they'll be stacked with liberals who are opposed to police at all times and liberals will say it's stacked with conservatives who side with police at all times,” Edmonds told the Bohemian in October 2013.

This very dynamic played out at recent meetings of Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council, as both law enforcement oversight efforts are about to lose their current leaders.

In its response to IOLERO, Director Jerry Threet’s latest annual oversight report, the Sheriff’s Office wrote that “the perceived success of IOLERO depends, at least in part, on the perceived failure or shortcomings of the Sheriff’s Office."

Threet, the director of the watchdog agency, wrote that the Sheriff’s Office had begun to “react with suspicion and distrust (to IOLERO)” in the past year while three men ran to replace Giordano as Sheriff, renewing a public debate over the need for law enforcement reform. Threet also asked for more access to historical information from the Sheriff’s Office.

The supervisors are in the process of interviewing candidates to replace Threet and said at a Dec. 4 meeting that they do not plan to restrict IOLERO’s oversight role.

In Santa Rosa, activists worry that the role of a police auditor is going to be restricted as well. In November, the City Council firedBob Aaronson, a consultant hired to report on the city’s police department, after Aaronson criticized the city’s homeless policy in his latest report.

Sheriff Rob Giordano listens to a speaker at a Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Aaronson told the Press Democrat that he expects the city to restrict the scope of his successor’s oversight role.

A city spokesperson told the paper that the role will “continue to include the review of police personnel investigations, use of force and community complaints.”

Lamont, who is waiting to see who replaces Threet and Aaronson, is skeptical of the Supervisors’ claim that they don’t plan to weaken IOLERO.

“Sonoma County feels like Washington D.C.,” Lamont said. “You make some small amount of progress and then it gets yanked back.”

Lingering Psychological Effects Suspected

Another activist says that other lingering impacts of the shooting have not been addressed either, especially because Erick Gelhaus, the deputy who shot Lopez, still works for the Sheriff’s Office, now as a sergeant.

“The psychological trauma that this case brought to the community has never been addressed,” said Evelina Molina, an organizing member of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. “This is a wound that no settlement will close as long as [Sergeant Erick] Gelhaus is out there.”

A study published this year in The Lancet, a medical journal, seems to bear Molina’s conclusion out. Black Americans who live in states where a police officer shoots an unarmed black person are more likely to experience days of poor mental health in the months following a shooting, according to the study.

“‘Having seen something so horrific and traumatic that happened to someone else, I’m reminded in a very painful and salient way that the deck might be stacked against me,’” one of the study’s authors told the  New York Times. “It’s really about all the kinds of insidious ways that structural racism can make people sick.”

Molina says that several of Lopez’s childhood friends dropped out of high school in the years following Lopez’s death due to the trauma of the event and later interactions with law enforcement officers.

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