OPINION: Community Partnership - YES on P
By Elizabeth Cozine, Former IOLERO Community Advisory Council Member
One sunny October afternoon in 2013 , a young middle schooler walked to a friend’s house to return a recently borrowed, air soft bb gun. He strode along side a dried and overgrown vacant lot in his Southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, a vacant lot he would never make it past. Shot seven times by Sonoma County Deputy Eric Gelhaus, Andy Lopez’s death set in motion the long sought after quest for reforms, accountability and eﬀective community oversight of the largest law enforcement agency in the County.
That quest continues with Measure P, in the November election.
Andy’s death set oﬀ a firestorm of sustained community protests. Fed up with frequent oﬃcer involved fatalities, people took to the streets to demand accountability and change. City Council chambers, Board of Supervisors’ meetings, District Attorney oﬃces, and Sheriﬀ’s oﬃces were inundated with demands for action and justice.
Over the following year, there were few days when Andy’s name did not appear somewhere in local newspapers. Long time activists revived their calls for police reforms and community oversight recommended in the 2000 Civil Rights Commission Report, itself a response to the high incidence of police shootings and in custody deaths in Sonoma County. They were joined by an empowered Latino community, student activists, and outraged citizens throughout the region, demanding wide ranging substantive reforms.
The Sheriﬀ’s Oﬃce, the Santa Rosa Police Department (the agency investigating Andy’s shooting) and the District Attorney’s Oﬃce responded in their usual manner of declaring that no policies or laws were broken in Andy’ shooting. But the Board of Supervisors did take action. They began to look closely at the needs of Andy’s long neglected Moorland Neighborhood, and they appointed the Community And Local Law Enforcement (CALLE) Task Force to closely examine police issues and community relations. After nearly 16 months of community meetings and research, this dedicated group issued a report with dozens of meaningful and substantive recommendations. Although most of those recommendations remain unmet, the call for the creation of an independent auditor and community council was heeded in 2016, with the approval of the Independent Oﬃce of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO).
The original IOLERO oﬃce consisted of one Director/Auditor and one paid Assistant, charged with receiving public complaints about the Sheriﬀ’s Oﬃce, reviewing and auditing Sheriﬀ investigations of critical incidents and excessive force, making policy recommendations, and robust community engagement. They were assisted by a volunteer Community Advisory Council, whose purpose was to reach out to the community, hold public meetings and make recommendations to ensure that Sheriﬀ’s policies reflected best practices and community values. Although IOLERO’s recommendations and findings were not binding, the Director’s conclusions would be made public in an annual report.
The goal of this new oﬃce was to increase transparency and accountability, and thus work with the Sheriﬀ to strive for best policies and practices, increase oﬃcer and community safety, and build public trust. Unfortunately, the reality of the IOLERO charter left it without the resources or powers it needed to do its job eﬀectively.
While civilian oversight of the police dates back more than a hundred years in this country, the modern vision of community oversight is best espoused by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) established in 1995. It recognizes that every oversight body is unique, and must be tailored to fit the needs of each community, but that no matter the model they all need suﬃcient resources, independence, and the power to eﬀectively fulfill their mission.
It became clear to IOLERO’s first Director, Jerry Threet, almost from the onset, that a two person oﬃce would be unable to adequately and timely audit Sheriﬀ’s investigations of fatalities, and serious incidences of use of force at the jail and on patrol, while at the same time supporting a viable Community Advisory Council to conduct public meetings, and reaching out to disenfranchised portions of the community. Despite these challenges, through working exhaustive hours, the IOLERO began to function: reviewing complaints, auditing internal investigations, making recommendations, conducting community meetings, collaborating with the Sheriﬀ’s Oﬃce in a workable manner. The Oﬃce worked with the Sheriﬀs on limiting cooperation with ICE, Body Camera Policy, and a Homeless interaction policy.