Oversight Knights

Sonoma County Law Enforcement Task Force to push for independent review of police shootings

The Sonoma County Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force was created in the wake of the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez at the hands of a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy in October.

The group started meeting in January, and its work quickly underscored some questionable procedures and policies in government—not to mention the slow pace of reform in the aftermath of the shooting.

The task force’s main agenda item is to push for the creation of an independent citizen-review body. Officer-involved shooting deaths in Sonoma County are now investigated by a separate law enforcement agency, whose findings are then reviewed by the Sonoma County Grand Jury.

One recent task force meeting contained some eye-opening comments from the grand jury. Volunteer grand jurors told a task-force subcommittee that they didn’t think they were the best group to investigate such incidents, decrying a lack of diversity (most grand jurors are white, well-off and over the age 60) and small budget ($75,000 annually).

“If we have four times the budget to decide whether [the grand jury’s budget] is adequate or not, maybe that’s not the right thing,” says task force member Robert Edmonds.

When the Santa Rosa Police Department is investigating an incident involving the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office at the same time the sheriff’s office is investigating an incident involving the police department—as is the situation with the Andy Lopez case—it’s no surprise that the public is clamoring for an independent, transparent review of the shooting. But when the grand jury is unsure whether it’s the right group to investigate the shooting, where’s the civilian review board now that it’s needed?

Edmonds pushed for a civilian review board in 2000, when the U.S. Civil Rights Commission recommended one for Sonoma County. It was never created, and Edmonds says he feels like he’s having to reinvent the wheel. “I’m frustrated, but I’m also optimistic,” he says. “The people I see who’ve been chosen as part of the task force are interested in making changes.”

The task force includes former and current law enforcement officials and community activists. Member Francisco Vázquez is also on the Community Engagement and Healing Subcommittee. “If we’re going to heal the community, the actual work of the task force won’t be evident for several years to come,” he says. “The best way to heal the community, I think, is to enter into a dialogue with the people who feel the brunt of police actions. I think, historically, Latinos are very justified in feeling that the law has not been giving them equal treatment.”

Edmonds says the task force would like to see more public participation—he’s used to seeing the same familiar faces at most meetings. “We haven’t been doing enough community outreach to get people involved,” he says. The task force was just approved to start a Facebook page (Sonoma County was hesitant due to potential liability issues). A community forum for the Community Engagement and Healing Subcommittee is scheduled for April 23 at Lawrence Cook Middle School. Information about the public meetings, including agendas, is available online at www.sonoma-county.org/communitylocallawtaskforce.

It’s been nearly four months since the 21-member panel’s first meeting, which outlined several recommendations it hoped to give the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Edmonds is confident the task force will do its part.

Once it makes its recommendations, the county will solicit input from the affected organizations, then report back to the task force, which will then return final recommendations to the board of supervisors.

“I think our report will come up with some very good recommendations,” says Vázquez, “but that’s not going to mean anything if they’re not implemented.”

Sonoma County Library