A citizens’ group formed to push for a recall election of Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas cleared a hurdle last week when the county registrar of voters approved the paperwork for a petition that set in motion a signature-drive campaign.
The Community Action Coalition group now has until Sept. 30 to gather 35,000 signatures to force a special recall election, which would be scheduled within 80 days of the Sept. 30 deadline. The group is demanding a recall election before a scheduled November 2018 vote in an election that won’t feature Freitas; the sheriff has roughly two years left on his term, and says he isn’t running again.
Coalition spokesperson Evelina Molina says two years is plenty of time for worry in light of the anti-immigrant Trump administration and ongoing community outrage over the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting. Given the logistics of the recall, she says, if it were successful, it would effectively shave six months off of Freitas’ term. “That is very significant,” she says. “We don’t totally know how much ICE is being built up—six months is a lot of time.”
She describes her group’s efforts as a David vs. Goliath struggle between the $150 million budget of the sheriff’s office and the 15-member volunteer organization group behind the recall effort. And, she says, “there is a possibility that Freitas could change his mind,” and decide to run again after all. That seems a slim possibility given Freitas’ response to the recall effort.
In a parallel development, civil rights attorney Alicia Roman, chairperson of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach’s Community Advisory Council, was removed from the body on March 15 by IOLERO executive director Jerry Threet.
Threet, the county auditor hired in 2016 to audit the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s (SCSO) internal investigations and work to bridge a chasm of bad faith in the community, explained his decision in a public statement that highlighted Roman’s unwillingness, he said, to work with the sheriff’s department to implement reforms and build trust in the county’s Latino community.
Roman is the lead local attorney behind an unfolding class action suit with thousands of noncitizen clients who claim they’ve been the victims of asset-forfeiture at the hands of law enforcement. She has been on the board since its inception. The 10-member board voted 8–2 to name her chair in December.
The Police Brutality Coalition of Sonoma County demanded Roman’s reinstatement at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting as it also called upon the board to “react to the sheriff’s neglect of the [Citizen Advisory Council’s] work, and rework the mission of the IOLERO,” according to a statement from the organization. In a recent interview with the Bohemian, Threet lamented that a pro-police-leaning member of the council had resigned his post, indicating that the man had provided balance to the council.
Freitas has not attended any of the five Citizen Advisory Council meetings held so far, though he has sent representation from his office. He meets monthly with Threet and recently described the relationship with the auditor in constructive terms and as a work in progress.
As for the recall effort, Freitas challenged it via a letter his office submitted to the registrar of voters that highlighted the cost to taxpayers of a special election. Deena Thompson-Stalder,
Elections Manager at the County of Sonoma Registrar of Voters, says her office has run the numbers and the recall election would cost between $476,000 and $748,000 to administer.
The intersecting police reform actions follow the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez. Activists’ frustration with Freitas and the SCSO—Erick Gelhaus, the officer who shot the 13-year-old, remains a street officer and was promoted to sergeant in 2015—has been ramped by a recent meeting Freitas held with five other California sheriffs and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (The meeting was in Washington before Sessions was sworn in.)
“Our conversations were primarily about ways we could work together to keep our communities safe,” says Freitas in his March 30 letter. He added that “whether you support me or are a critic of my six years as sheriff, I will be leaving office” at the end of 2018.
Trump has moved swiftly to ramp up deportation efforts and has enjoined local law enforcement in the effort, with mixed degrees of pushback and participation. Freitas has vowed to not work with ICE at the street level, but the agency is notified when violent offenders or DUI noncitizens are booked into the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility.
The simultaneous recall-Freitas and retain-Roman activism is unfolding as a May 9 federal court date in Pasadena may shine further light on the prospects of a wrongful death suit brought by the Lopez family against Gelhaus and Sonoma County.
The county unsuccessfully argued for limited immunity for Gelhaus—presumably to clear a path to a county settlement without personally implicating the officer—and the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals may address the county’s argument that the shooting was justified under the circumstances. Lopez was carrying two toy weapons when he was shot six times. The county says he turned to point a toy AK-47 weapon at Gelhaus when he and another officer commanded him to drop it.