A “reasonable” killing in Santa Rosa?
The kid in the picture is me, age about 9, when I lived in Hawaii. It may have been Christmas Day, given that I’m dressed for church and toting a shiny new Daisy BB gun.
On Monday, we learned that a law enforcement officer could spot this kid on a Santa Rosa street, and – within seconds – “reasonably” assess him as a lethal threat and then pump seven bullets into his young body.
I won’t argue with the legality of District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s decision in the case of the shooting of Andy Lopez by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus. But let’s not pretend that just because something is legal that it is right. What happened last October on Moorland Avenue may in fact be legally “reasonable,” but it should never be acceptable.
No child should be shot dead by a cop in his neighborhood for walking down the street carrying a toy gun.
We live in a different time than 1963, and in a different world. We live in a time and place that is all too familiar with random, crazy violence carried out by disturbed young men with high-powered weapons. Southwest Santa Rosa is a long way from Wahiawa, Hawaii, and Andy Lopez was a young Latino wearing a hoodie, not a crew-cut white kid in a button-down shirt.
All of those differences played into what happened on Moorland Avenue, to be sure. But none comes close to justifying the outcome: a 13-year-old boy is dead, our legal system says no crime was committed and our law enforcement community says its procedures were followed.
That’s simply not acceptable.
District Attorney Ravitch stressed that while the killing was not a criminal offense, “this was absolutely a tragedy.” Sheriff Steve Freitas expressed his personal sadness and sympathy for the Lopez family, and he also called the incident a “tragedy.” Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley said, “The tragedy is the tragedy.” And of course this is a tragic incident. But I, for one, would like to hear more of our elected leaders also acknowledge that this was a mistake, that what Deputy Gelhaus did was wrong.
And let’s go beyond a single deputy. If law enforcement training and tactics lead to an outcome like this, let’s examine the training and tactics. If the Sheriff’s Department’s policies, procedures and protocols don’t prevent the kind of scenario that played out last October on Moorland Avenue, then the policies, procedures and protocols must be changed.
We are a community that – not for the first time – has lost a child in a hail of bullets from a peace officer’s weapon. We are a community that, after a long investigation, once again has been told that the shooting was reasonable and legal under the law.
Is that acceptable? Not to me.
Thankfully, the Board of Supervisors early this year appointed a county-wide task force to explore that question, particularly as it pertains to the establishment of some type of community oversight of law enforcement “critical incidents” and the expansion of community-oriented police practices. A third element of the task force’s work – “community engagement and healing” – will be addressed at a public forum at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.
All of this is important, and necessary. The community needs healing. Community policing helps police see residents of a neighborhood as people, not “threats.” (It also helps residents see police officers as people, not “threats.”) And while civilian oversight of police has been debated in this community for years, it’s more apparent now than ever that it is a critical element in restoring trust and assuring transparency when a tragedy such as Andy Lopez’s death occurs.
So let’s support the work of the task force, and urge not just the county but all Sonoma County cities to support and adopt its findings. Let’s make it clear that the status quo is not acceptable.
Because while the mantra today is “to make sure this never happens again,” history tells that unless we make some substantive changes, it probably will.
And there’s nothing reasonable about that.