Tending the Fire

Three years after Andy Lopez's death, what has changed?

Last Saturday was the third anniversary of the killing of Andy Lopez by Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus. Friends, activists and members of the community gathered to honor his memory and rededicate themselves to changing a system that finds this acceptable and exonerates the killer.

What has changed and what has not in those three years?

The empty lot where he was shot is one of the bright spots in this grim story. A memorial at the site is tended by the community, where gatherings have been held in Andy’s name. Community meetings were conducted to transform the empty lot. Promised a park 28 years ago, the community will finally get one, with the price tag being the death of one of its own.

Law enforcement improvements are more difficult. Responding to justifiably angry protests over Andy’s killing by young Latino students, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors created the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force.

The task force helped create the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

Many people in Sonoma County think “problem solved.” But it’s really just a board asking a task force to make recommendations to create another office to create another board to make more recommendations, with no force of law, which can be ignored by the sheriff. Recently, the head of one such board in Sacramento resigned saying that such an entity cannot meet community expectations.

And we had an “independent” investigation, didn’t we? But District Attorney Jill Ravitch hired William Lewinski, a law enforcement consultant and expert witness who sells himself to municipalities that want officers declared innocent after they’re involved in shootings.

Sheriff Steve Freitas has promoted Gelhaus for a job well done. Some students at Santa Rosa Junior College and community members declare Gelhaus’ continued presence as a public and mental health crisis for traumatized youth in affected communities.

Some seeds require a fire to sprout. The many protests across the country against killings by law enforcement are part of the wildfire that can release seeds of a new culture around law enforcement. Politicians have learned well how to put out those fires through bureaucracy. It is our job to keep them lit. It requires community involvement to make any change real.

Susan C. Lamont is a member of the Police Brutality Coalition of Sonoma County.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the ‘Bohemian.’ To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write [email protected].