Jan 2, 2019
By Dan Kerbein, André Marc and Evelina Molina
By the time acting Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano sat before the microphone on December 18 to announce a legal settlement, theAndy Lopez case had gone through a long and tangled process of interpretation, during which the Sheriff's Department itself went through the turmoil of a recall threat and election of a new Sheriff.
During his brief press conference, Giordano recounted the story then-Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who opened fire on 13-year old Lopez because the boy was carrying a toy gun that looked like a real AK-47 to the deputy. Fearing for his life, he fired all nine bullets from his clip, seven of them entered Lopez' body.
The take-away recommended by Giordano is that the shooting was instigated by a “replica gun,” a toy gun that looks so much like the real world version of the weapon that young people get killed by police officers when seen carrying them. The kid should not have been given a replica gun - a sad case, but very simple.
For example, a Federal District Court judge in Oakland disagreed with the argument that Gelhaus should be guaranteed immunity from civil litigation due to a perceived deadly threat.
Propelled by the desire for a ruling that would allow the case to be dropped, the County forged ahead, but continued to lose in court.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict of the Oakland appeals court. TheLos Angeles Times quoted one of the judges on that panel, Milan D. Smith, concluding that Gelhaus “did not appear to face danger or an immediate threat to himself or others.”
In a written ruling, Judge Smith pointed out the facts as presented to him from case documents: “Andy was walking normally … in broad daylight in a residential neighborhood,” and did not display “aggressive behavior.”
Moreover, the deputy “deployed deadly force while Andy was on the sidewalk holding a gun that was pointed down at the ground,” and “without having warned [him] that such force would be used,” according to Smith.
By the time of the settlement, the shots fired at Andy Lopez had been heard in appeals courts all over the nation.
In January 2018 the County petitioned the august body of the U.S. Supreme Court to review Gelhaus vs. The Estate of Andy Lopez, in the hope that the justices would approve immunity for Gelhaus from civil suits.
The Supreme Court denied the petition without comment, sending it back to Oakland Federal District Court for trial.
No higher court existed that would allow the County to have the Lopez family's complaint dropped, or prevent them from litigating their case.
While the Lopez case was making its way through the courts, Sonoma County locally was shaken up by the voluntary early retirement (in the face of a recall vote) of Sheriff Steve Freitas, his appointment of Acting Sheriff Robert Giordano, and the election of Mark Essick as the next Sheriff in June 2018.
A law enforcement review committee, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), was appointed in 2015 and given the mission to recommend policies and reporting methods on the part of the Sheriff''s Office, to foster better accountability with the public.
Andy's shooting precipitated a great deal of unrest and distrust of the Sheriff's Office. In creating IOLERO, the county's stated aim was to establish “a new County office charged with independent, civilian review of law enforcement.”
After a costly legal odyssey, the County offered a $3 million settlement to the Lopez family. Weary from grief and the drawn-out legal process, the Lopez’ accepted.
The Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez, a local community grassroots group, expressed support for the family's decision to seek closure, knowing however that this settlement means that any and all facts or eyewitness accounts of the killing will be permanently sealed, and that it includes no admissions of wrongdoing by Gelhaus or the County of Sonoma.
Healing is a theme that has dominated local public dialog in the five years since the killing of Andy Lopez.
The one advocated by the Sonoma County administration and the Sheriff’s Office involves putting aside anger, putting aside lawsuits over police violence, and giving peace officers the benefit of the doubt as they do their difficult jobs. In return, law enforcement promises internal changes to prevent similar incidents.
The view of people who spoke at candidate events during last year's Sheriff election, is that trust building is key to the healing process. People declared they want to feel safe from police shootings and other aggressive actions. They want accountability when law enforcement steps over the line, and assurance that believable measures are in place to prevent future abuses This building of public trust needs to become present, not absent from police concerns about the public they serve.
In a major gesture toward healing, Sonoma County constructed a multi-acre regional park, named Andy's Unity Park.
It was built on the very site where young Andy Lopez was killed in 2013. Hundreds of visitors every day come to the park, many of them consciously paying tribute to Andy.
At the dedication of Andy’s Unity Park in June, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins made a public apology to the Lopez family, expressing a hope of healing for this family, as well as across the countywide community.
Suje Lopez, Andy’s mother, wants the community to be reminded that this park is not only a monument to her son, with its many opportunities for family fun and enjoyment in a safe environment. It also serves as a reminder of the day her son was killed without warning, an injustice she is determined must never happen to another Sonoma County child.
“Accountability” is a term heard frequently when many people and community groups talk about healing. Accountability could be as simple as transparency, according to supporters of IOLERO, the law enforcement review committee.
To them, transparency is another step in the direction of trust building if the Sheriff’s Office implements their recommendations and doesn't obstruct its function.
Accountability could also mean jail time.
“Real healing would have started when Erick Gelhaus was convicted and jailed for the senseless killing of Andy Lopez,” said a member of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez (JCAL), who noted that other people in the community “feel that Gelhaus executed Andy Lopez, who was minding his own business in his own neighborhood, legally carrying a toy.
“Not only was there no conviction, but Gelhaus was promoted to Sergeant. In light of the way the County and the Sheriff’s Department mishandled this entire case and in seeking immunity for Gelhaus, costing the taxpayers and community of Sonoma County millions of dollars, real healing will never be achievable until justice is served,” the JCAL member continued.
The case of Erick Gelhaus vs. The Estate of Andy Lopez may be a freshly settled legal matter, but it appears that the new Sheriff, Mark Essick, has some healing work to do with the county he serves.
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