Policing the Police

SoCo task force on law enforcement delivers recommendations

The Sonoma County Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force met on Monday as part of an ongoing attempt to reform and retool law enforcement protocols in the wake of the October 2013 shooting death of Andy Lopez.

Much of the work of the task force—created by Sonoma County officials—has dealt with perceived shortcomings in the way the Lopez death was handled, and to study a set of issues put to them by Sonoma leaders: the feasibility of an independent citizen review body; recommended options for “community policing”; a deep-dive on the subject of whether the coroner’s office should be split from the purview of the sheriff’s office; and community concerns not otherwise included in the county to-do list.

Lopez, a young Santa Rosan, was shot and killed by Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who believed the Airsoft rifle the 13-year-old was carrying was a real gun.

The state and now Sen. Barbara Boxer have taken up the issue of gun safety and toy guns. Last year, legislation mandating better identification markings on these guns was sponsored by State Sen. Noreen Evans and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Boxer’s bill follows on with a call to broaden the Evans bill to a national standard for fake-gun safety.

“No child should ever die because a police officer or anyone else mistakes a toy gun for a real weapon,” Boxer said in a statement. “This legislation will protect our kids and help law enforcement by making sure that imitation firearms cannot be mistaken for real firearms.”

Boxer said that she asked the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to review the Evans bill, designed to make sure that “toy guns are clearly distinguishable from real guns by requiring that all imitation firearms sold in the state be painted a bright color or feature bright fluorescent stripes.”

She asked the federal agency to adopt the California standard on toy-gun safety.

The task force’s job is of a different sort—concerned less with fake guns than with changing procedures in Sonoma County. One of its early recommendations sought to have Gelhaus removed from his job, but Sonoma District Attorney Jill Ravitch exonerated the deputy last July following an internal investigation of the events surrounding the tragic encounter with Lopez.

A core issue in the task force’s work: Who should investigate officer-involved shootings? The task force found the civil grand jury process not up to the task of investigating officers: “While [it] may investigate officer-involved fatalities, it does not have the resources to perform in-depth reviews or lengthy investigations
of every officer-involved fatality. . . . Find another mechanism for accountability in law enforcement other than the Grand Jury.”

The task force said on Monday that the Sonoma Coroner’s Unit should be divested from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The Coroner’s Unit is an investigative arm of the department; its staff is primarily Sonoma County law enforcement.

The task force cited the implicit conflict of interest: “Among the Coroner’s general duties, the Coroner is charged with the specific responsibility of determining cause of death in incidents where an individual dies while in the custody of the Sheriff or by actions taken involving employees of the Sheriff.”

They suggested a county office of the medical examiner could provide independence the necessary to ensure an unbiased evaluation of an officer-related shooting.

It will be up to the county supervisors to decide which, if any, of the recommendations are taken up legislatively.

Sonoma County Library