By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday sought to map out their response to the Andy Lopez shooting with a robust plan of action, endorsing work on a memorial park in the Santa Rosa boy’s neighborhood and more than a dozen other proposals aimed at repairing trust in local government and law enforcement.
In addition to the park, the Board of Supervisors also supported formation of a community task force to study models for independent citizen oversight of law enforcement and launched internal reviews of county police training and operations, including policies for use of lethal force.
Those efforts are set to come back with findings and recommendations within the first half of next year.
Supervisors also unanimously supported spending an estimated $250,000 to add lapel cameras to the uniforms of the county’s roughly 250 patrol deputies. The move, which is supported by Sheriff Steve Freitas, was seen as an immediate measure to help smooth community relations with the Sheriff’s Office after a veteran deputy shot and killed Lopez, 13, when he mistook his airsoft BB gun for an assault rifle. Other fixes are envisioned over a longer term.
The wide range of measures comes a month after the board’s first discussion of the Oct. 22 shooting. Where that gathering was proposed for listening, Tuesday’s was for outlining action.
“This is about empowering a community and creating lasting change,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo. He said the shooting has come to represent a pivotal moment for Sonoma County, demanding a comprehensive response not just to a single tragedy but an overhaul of how local government serves disadvantaged communities countywide.
On many issues, the response has been overdue, Carrillo said.
“Sadly, it developed from a tragic event that occurred in our community,” he said. “But this is much larger than that event and it’s much larger than the challenges that many of those in our (individual) communities face.”
The moves come amid sustained outrage in Lopez’s southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood and strong criticism leveled at the county by the boy’s family, members of the Latino community and student groups, as well as civil rights activists from throughout the Bay Area.
Angelica Tercero, a Roseland resident who has taken part in that movement, thanked the board and county for its work but suggested they had a long way to go to reestablish credibility with fearful residents.
“This was not just a mistake,” Tercero said. “It was a horrible mistake.”
Lopez was shot by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the department and former Army soldier who served in Iraq. Gelhaus reportedly mistook the boy’s airsoft BB gun — one made to look like an AK-47 assault rifle — for a real gun.
Gelhaus has served as a firearms instructor with the Sheriff’s Office since 1995. Tercero said the deputies he has instructed needed to be retrained.
“That hasn’t come out,” she said. “I haven’t heard it. I haven’t seen it.”
No representative from the Sheriff’s Office spoke at Tuesday’s hearing. An investigation into the shooting by Santa Rosa police and the county District Attorney’s Office is ongoing.
Among the other initiatives that supervisors endorsed in the two-hour meeting was a redoubled effort to push for Santa Rosa’s annexation of the unincorporated islands in its midst. That includes not just Roseland, the largest island spanning a predominantly Latino and lower-income neighborhood that has languished under county jurisdiction for decades, but also Lopez’s Moorland Avenue neighborhood to the south.
Carrillo and Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who together represent most of Santa Rosa, will spearhead that effort. Annexation of Roseland has been thwarted for years by funding disagreements between the county and city. Supervisors said it was time to reach a deal.
“There’s got to be a way to compromise,” said David Rabbitt, the board chairman.
Other measures included a planned slate of town hall meetings; support for state legislation to more closely regulate the look of BB, pellet and airsoft guns; work to explore starting a program to buy back firearms, replica weapons and toy guns; and a boost in spending for small businesses and infrastructure in disadvantaged areas.
In the case of the park proposed in Lopez’s memory, it could have the same location as one planned for the neighborhood since the early 1980s, nearly 20 years before Lopez was born. The park was stalled due to a number of factors wrapped up in the county planning process, and more recently, the housing market downturn.
“This community should have had a park decades ago,” Carrillo said.
He announced that he had held informal talks with the property owner, real estate agent and former Santa Rosa planning commissioner David Poulsen. Later, Carrillo said the county was not yet in negotiations, but said that Poulsen seemed open to the possibility of a park on the parcel at Moorland and West Robles avenues.
“I do believe he (Poulsen) has the community’s best interests in mind,” Carrillo said.
Poulsen has not returned previous calls for comment. The county is set to report back on the park plans in two months.
Many of the proposals aired Tuesday were first sketched out at the board’s Nov. 5 meeting. Perhaps the most significant and concrete at this point was the county-chartered community task force that will study and recommend a model for independent citizen oversight of law enforcement.
The aim is for the resulting entity to have authority countywide, be it a citizen panel or independent auditor or some hybrid approach. Supervisors acknowledged that goal is ambitious as countywide agreements on libraries, waste management and even a ban on plastic bags have proved fractious of late.
The 21-member task force will be composed of 15 appointees selected by supervisors, three appointees selected by the Sheriff’s Office, one by the District Attorney’s Office and two by Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley.
Supervisors promised a panel diverse in age, ethnicity, professional background and geographic representation of the county.
One speaker Tuesday urged the county to not limit the task force’s exploration of police review bodies to the four predominant oversight models now in existence.
“Please encourage the task force to cast a wide net for models to emulate,” said Jim Duffy, a Rohnert Park resident.
The panel is also to study options for wider “community policing” measures, which emphasize closer day-to-day contact with residents, and whether the elected role of sheriff should be separate from that of coroner. In Sonoma County, the two are joined under the same office.
Supervisors are set to return next Tuesday with their selections for the task force. It will convene in January, with a report due back in March on law enforcement oversight.