Dec 18, 2018
by Will Carruthers
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to a settlement with the family of a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy in October 2013.
Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot and killed Andy Lopez in southwest Santa Rosa after mistaking a replica gun Lopez was carrying for a real weapon.
Under today's settlement, the county agreed to pay $3 million to Lopez's family but did not admit liability in the lawsuit or any other claims against the Sheriff's Office, according to Bruce Goldstein, Sonoma County Counsel.
"The bottom line is, a 13-year-old died, the deputy was cleared of all wrongdoing and I understand why he did what he did," Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
In July 2014, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced that her office would not file criminal charges against Gelhaus after concluding that he had not broken the law.
The civil case against the county for damages settled today was filed by Lopez's family two weeks after his death.
In June, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling denied Gelhaus immunity from civil liability. Instead, the judges ruled that a federal jury should decide whether Gelhaus used excessive force in the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied the county's appeal to hear the case without comment.
Giordano said that the county still disagrees with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling, adding that he believes the ruling will be challenged in the future because it has "made some lack of clarity in the law."
"[The court’s decision] was truly more about the legal decision about how peace officers use force every day," Giordano said. "It actually got bigger than [the Andy Lopez case] and that’s what delayed the case."
Gelhaus currently serves in the Sheriff's Office as a sergeant supervising a patrol team, according to Giordano.
The settlement is the third this year for the county law enforcement agency. Two previous cases involving the office were settled for a total of $3.7 million.
While the Sheriff's Office regularly updates its use of force policies to comply with recent court rulings, Giordano did not identify any changes made as a result of the Lopez case.
Asked how officers would react if they were in a similar situation with a fake gun again, Giordano said that nothing has changed.
"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, adding that he expects similar shootings to continue.
In the past five years, the case has elevated calls for increased law enforcement oversight in the county.
In response, the county and City of Santa Rosa pursued law enforcement oversight efforts. The county formed theIndependent Oversight and Law Enforcement Review and Outreach and Santa Rosa hired an attorney, Bob Aaronson, to complete annual reports about the Santa Rosa Police Department.
Both efforts are in transition. The Santa Rosa City Council decided this month to find a replacement for Aaronson after he critiqued the city's homeless policies in his latest report.
Jerry Threet, director of the Independent Oversight and Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, will step down at the end of the year, citing health concerns.
Threet and Giordano aired their disagreements about IOLERO's most recent report and the oversight agency's role at a Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting.
The Board of Supervisors is interviewing candidates to replace Threet.
Sheriff-elect Mark Essick will take over the Sheriff's Office in the new year.
A video of the press conference is available here.
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