By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch and her main political rival sparred Friday over her handling of the investigation into the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.
Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan, who is running against Ravitch in the June 3 primary, on Friday accused her boss of failing to deliver on campaign promises to reform how officer-involved deaths are reviewed in the county, instead adopting a “business as usual” approach.
“This tragic situation has shed light on her failure to lead this office to the next level,” said Shanahan, who vowed a speedier and more transparent process if she is elected.
But Ravitch blasted her colleague’s remarks as “shameful and reckless” and vowed not to allow the ongoing investigation to be politicized.
“I’m very disappointed that my opponent has chosen to politicize the tragic death of a child,” Ravitch said. “It is disrespectful of the memory of Andy Lopez, and most of all it distracts from my paramount duty to ensure the investigation is thorough and fair, an essential prerequisite to seeking justice.”
The exchange highlights how Lopez’s death continues to reverberate throughout a community struggling to come to grips with why he was killed and what needs to change.
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot Lopez seven times Oct. 22 as the eighth-grader was walking along Moorland Avenue carrying an airsoft BB gun that looked like an AK-47 assault rifle. The deputy reportedly mistook it for a real weapon and opened fire after yelling at Lopez to drop the gun. Gelhaus told police investigators he felt threatened by the way Lopez raised the gun as he turned.
The shooting made national news as protesters decried what they labeled an example of excessive police force in a largely Latino neighborhood. They also are demanding that Gelhaus, who since has returned to work on a desk assignment, be brought up on criminal charges.
Following protocols for officer-involved shootings, the Santa Rosa Police Department investigated the case with help from the Petaluma Police Department and delivered its report on the shooting to Ravitch on Wednesday. She pledged a thorough and transparent review process, but said she would not be rushed through a report she called “voluminous.”
“To suggest that I should turn around after many months of investigation and suddenly decide whether or not a crime occurred is not respecting the process and not respecting the pursuit of justice,” Ravitch said Friday.
The 90-day review period suggested in a county protocol is only a guideline and not required by law, she said. On Thursday, she released statistics showing the average turnaround time for such a decision is more than six months.
Lopez activists seized on the release as a sign Ravitch was planning to delay her review until after the primary, which Ravitch has denied.
Shanahan on Friday said Ravitch’s apparent justification of a potentially longer review period highlights her unkept campaign promise to overhaul the process.
When Ravitch ran against her boss, incumbent D.A. Stephan Passalacqua, in 2010, Ravitch argued there had been a “loss of confidence” among local law enforcement due to his handling of officer-involved fatalities, with reviews taking up to 22 months, Shanahan noted.
“We owe it to the people on the streets who wear badges” to act more quickly, Ravitch said during the campaign, according to the blog item by Press Democrat editorial writer Jim Sweeney cited by Shanahan.
Now Shanahan is taking a page from Ravitch’s political playbook, criticizing her boss over the same issue. Shanahan says Ravitch has made “zero” changes to the investigation process during her tenure.
Ravitch said Friday she has made good on her pledge and has had “great success” in speeding up the review process. She noted that three of the five cases handled were completed in fewer than 90 days. The statistics show the review of those five cases averaged four months, an improvement over her predecessor’s record.
“It’s not simply a race to the finish,” Ravitch said. “It is an effort to ensure that a complete and thorough investigation and review occurs.”
But Shanahan’s critique goes beyond the speed of the review process. She thinks Ravitch should have recused herself from handling the case in the first place because of her “political entanglements” with Sheriff Steve Freitas.
She believes Ravitch also should have recognized that the Lopez shooting was a different type of case that needed to be investigated by the District Attorney’s Office instead of law enforcement departments engaged in investigations of one another. D.A.’s offices in Mendocino, Lake, Orange and Riverside counties all have a policy of investigating all officer-involved deaths, she said.
Doing so also would relieve pressure on police agencies such as Santa Rosa, which has been stretched thin by multiple simultaneous homicide investigations, she said.
“I think there could be a better way to do this,” Shanahan said. “It’s time to talk about it.”
Some Ravitch supporters called Shanahan’s remarks little more than opportunistic political posturing. Political consultant Terry Price, who ran Ravitch’s 2010 campaign, noted that Shanahan’s husband is a sheriff’s deputy, and she wouldn’t be able to conduct the Lopez review.
“She doesn’t have any standing at all to make such an accusation because, if she were the D.A., she wouldn’t be able to handle the case due to her inherent conflict,” Price said.
Shanahan denied she would have a conflict in the Lopez case, noting that would apply only if her husband, a patrol deputy, or an officer with whom she was friendly were involved in the incident.
Shanahan said she would ensure a “much more streamlined and speedy process” that was “completely transparent” once a decision had been made.
If criminal liability was not clear, she said she would convene a criminal grand jury process that would be open to the public. She acknowledged that such a proceeding would be “very unusual” but said it is worth looking at.
If criminal liability was not found, she said she would release “the ultimate report to the civil grand jury and make a complete copy of the findings available to the public.”
She explained that historically the pattern has been for the District Attorney’s Office to keep its full report confidential and issue only a press release explaining the decision.
Ravitch stressed that Shanahan has not and will not be involved any facet of the review process.
Ravitch said she is committed to being transparent about whatever decision is made in the case but can’t say at this point how detailed the findings will be, noting that her office has had the report for a mere two days. Whether the police report is ultimately released to the public will be up to the Santa Rosa Police Department, she said.
Acting Police Chief Hank Schreeder said his department has released significant information about the incident to date, but the investigative report will not be released while the review is ongoing. Doing so would be unfair and could jeopardize the investigation, he said.
“Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty,” Schreeder said. “If I were to release a document than ends up tainting a jury, is that fair to the people being accused? The answer is no.”
Asked if the report would be released after the investigation is over, Schreeder said he expected it may be as part of the civil litigation process.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.