Souls on Ice

Time to clean house in Sonoma County law enforcement

It is autumn in Sonoma County, and beyond the vibrant fall colors exists the reality of the news headlines greeting us with daily stories of mass shootings and the killing and abuse of the innocent or powerless by law enforcement.

It has now been two years since 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot down while walking to his friend’s house with a toy gun. The boy was killed by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus, who still patrols the streets of Santa Rosa while the Lopez family still seeks justice.

Just before the second anniversary of Andy’s death came the news of a lawsuit that exposes the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility as the jail from hell.

The Sonoma lockup has become a center of torture and brutality for inmates, whose care and well-being have been entrusted to the Sonoma County sheriff and his deputies. The suit claims inmates have been beaten and subjected to the most inhumane treatment law enforcement can inflict, short of outright murder.

The suit is stunning. It charges that emergency-response deputies, dressed in all-black uniforms and ski masks, entered inmates’ cells, handcuffed and savagely kicked and beat them for hours. Inmates claim to have been stripped naked, punched, body-slammed to the ground and taken blows to their heads, as well as other atrocities. The fear described by the inmates is unimaginable.

These acts are flagrantly unconstitutional, outrageous human-rights violations. In Sonoma County, Sheriff Steve Freitas is responsible for the jail, and at this point he and any deputies involved in this outrage must be charged, prosecuted and put in prison.

But this will never occur as long as the investigation of the incident is run by the sheriff. Sonoma County district attorney Jill Ravitch refused to investigate the charges and instead directed witnesses to the sheriff’s department. She must bring in an outside investigating body, as it is ludicrous to think that any investigation run by Freitas will be undertaken in the name of justice.

It is way past time to rid the community of these law enforcement cancers. Sonoma County must have a new sheriff, new district attorney, a new assistant district attorney—a general change in leadership. That would be a good start.

Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard is a founding member of the Black Panther Party and the Police Accountability Clinic and Hotline in Santa Rosa. He is an author, lecturer and community activist in Sonoma County.

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