Gun Crazy

On the struggle for answers in the killing of Andy Lopez

| October 30, 2013

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Such questions have yet again brought up the need for a civilian review board, which could potentially have subpoena powers and could provide taxpayers with a mechanism to oversee the public servants whose salaries they pay. In fact, a civilian review board was recommended for Sonoma County by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2000, after a one-year probe into a spate of officer-related deaths and the conflicts of interest inherent in local protocol for investigations. Civilian review was criticized by law enforcement, then as now, as unnecessary.

Even longtime activists like Mary Moore admit that civilian review boards aren't perfect. "I am personally one of those that feels that civilian review boards have their downsides," she says. But considering the current practice of local departments investigating each other, Moore adds, "I just don't see that anybody would trust that process to be either transparent or accurate. We definitely need an outside eye on this."

Longtime police-accountability activist Robert Edmonds points out that in the 26 officer-related fatal shootings that have occurred since 2000—a number that includes deaths caused by Taser—no officer has ever been convicted of any wrongdoing. Edmonds says this underscores the need for outside investigations, even while predicting that civilian review boards can create extra levels of bureaucracy—and won't always stop complaints. "Police say they'll be stacked with liberals who are opposed to police at all times," Edmonds notes, "and liberals will say it's stacked with conservatives who side with police at all times."

Still, Edmonds says, something needs to be done to stop the cycle of citizens being shot. Looking at other models in San Francisco and beyond, a civilian review board could be set up in such a way to provide that opportunity. As Marty McReynolds of the ACLU stated last week, "Only such an independent investigation can supply the facts needed for corrective recommendations and give the public confidence in the actions of the agents pledged to protect our community."

SOMBER MEMORIAL A visitor lights a candle on the spot where Andy Lopez was shot by a sheriff's deputy last Wednesday. - GABE MELINE
  • Gabe Meline
  • SOMBER MEMORIAL A visitor lights a candle on the spot where Andy Lopez was shot by a sheriff's deputy last Wednesday.

Sheriff Frietas asserts that the existing grand jury serves as the impartial outside body that police accountability activists continue to demand. Comprised of 19 voluntary applicants, the grand jury delivers the final report on the district attorney's findings into officer-related shooting investigations.

But a community like that of Andy Lopez's won't see itself represented in the grand jury. The current grand jury, for example, is very predominantly white and over 50 years old. "Typically, grand jury membership involves a time commitment of some portion of two to three days a week," reads the grand jury's operational summary, and who, living in the low-income neighborhood of Moorland Avenue, has that kind of time?

The FBI will investigate the shooting, and has stated that Andy Lopez's civil rights will be an issue in their investigation. This can hopefully address questions about the shooting's racial implications and the marginalization of the Latino community at large in Sonoma County. Just this month, Santa Rosa police and SWAT members surrounded a house for 11 hours after reports of a man firing a gun at his wife. Why would officers wait 11 hours when dealing with a man shooting a real gun and only wait 10 seconds when dealing with a teenager carrying a replica gun? Could it be that the man was a middle-aged business developer living in Fountaingrove, instead of a teenager in a hoodie walking in a largely Latino neighborhood?

Chances are that amid the slow investigation process, more facts could come to light via a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Lopez's family, who reportedly has hired an attorney. This could yield much more information on the shooting than is available to the public or the press, says Santa Rosa attorney Patrick Emery, who represented the family of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old shot and killed by county deputies in 2007.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed by Emery on behalf of the Chass family resulted in a $1.75 million out-of-court settlement. But it also resulted in a collection of evidence that Emery says conflicted with official reports at the time coming from the sheriff's department, the SRPD and the Press Democrat.

That evidence was never stifled by a nondisclosure agreement; if the family wanted to, they could have released it, says Emery. "In the Chass case, my clients chose not to speak further once the case was settled. It was their choice simply to avoid further emotional upset, and that was a very emotional personal decision they made."

 March for Andy Lopez

By Nicolas Grizzle

March and rally for Andy Lopez on Oct. 25, 2013


Comments (18)

Showing 1-18 of 18

They put orange tipos on toy guns and airsoft guns for a reason: to prevent others from thinking that it is a real gun. A thirteen year old boy like Andy Lopez knows why the tip is there. He also knows that taking the tip off makes it look more like a real gun. It was his decision. Given that he knew the gun looked like a real one with the tip removed, he should have immediately laid the gun on the ground, before turning around. The cop responded the way they are trained to respond to a threat of death - completely eliminate the threat. That is what he did. It is a shame, but it was a good shoot, and it does not represent a wrongful death.

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Posted by Jethro Hooper on 10/30/2013 at 7:58 AM

Jethro: The gun was not even his, it was a friends. You are ignorant to blame him for removing the orange tip. The cop wasn't even out of the car when he said to drop the gun, and "can't remember" if he identified himself as a police officer. The boy had no time to even turn around to see who was yelling at him.
Why is there such a public outcry? Because it is an injustice that a boy has lost his life due to a police officers trigger-happy response. The cop was also fearful for the neighbors, yet his bullets went through a home and into a kitchen cabinet with a 10 month old baby inside. We are lucky there weren't more lives snuffed out by this officers actions. Cops need to be better trained to deal in communities…this is not Iraq. These are every day people, kids playing in an empty lot with paint guns, etc. every day. We/they are not the enemy! We pay their salaries and they should respect the public, even if they live on the "wrong side of town." For you to say it was a "good shoot"? WHF? It's total bullshit that this innocent kid won't live to graduate from 8th grade, high school, get married…all because a cop rushed to judgement. I hope justice is served and the cop goes to jail.

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Posted by Kate W. on 10/30/2013 at 10:42 AM

We need to PROHIBIT ANY ex-military soldier from becoming a police officer!!! PERIOD!!! They come back to the states with a military mind set. They have seen and done things in war that no one should have to deal with. Yet, they do. I feel for the men and women of the armed forces that come back to states messed up. I respect the men and women of the military. I have a close friend that is dealing with both disability and PTSD from the Army. If they want to continue a "military" style life, there are plenty of private security forces out there they could join. But the police and sheriff departments should NOT be one of them.

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Posted by Deadman Walking on 10/30/2013 at 10:59 AM

I want to thank Gabe for a very informative article. The problem with this shooting is that the officer fired 8 times. After the first shot, he was no longer threatened by what he perceived to be a gunman. The other seven bullets were meant to kill! The suspect was shot in the much of a threat was that? I am so sorry that Andy Lopez is dead. He made a very foolish mistake, one that I hope other kids won't make: DON'T MAKE A TOY WEAPON LOOK REAL.

report 28 likes, 8 dislikes   
Posted by beckydsl 940 on 10/30/2013 at 11:56 AM

It's such a sad and tragic story, but no doubt this police officer will be haunted by this the rest of his life. That gun looked exactly like a very dangerous AK-47 so there was no way for anyone to determine it wasn't real. People state that the police shouldn't have shot a "child", but they didn't know his age. Yes he was young but fresh in their minds was the 12 year old who just shot teachers and students in his school in Nevada. With the proliferation of so many guns in our society, we have created this police state where facing citizens with guns is becoming common place. Could the police have waited 10 more seconds to shoot? perhaps. How many people could have been injured in that time if the gun WAS real and the boy started shooting? No one wants to speculate on that option, but in the mind of the police, that was the real and present danger. There have been many cases of police shooting unarmed persons, but this case simply does not fit that description. The outrage expressed is really out of line with the reality of this particular case. He was not Travon, walking down the street unarmed and attacked for no reason!

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Posted by Debbie on 10/30/2013 at 12:06 PM

I was thinking Bennett Valley, but Fountaingrove is a much better example. Thanks Gabe.

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Posted by David Garland on 10/30/2013 at 3:14 PM

To my knowledge it is not illegal to carry a gun (real or not) down the street. The individual was not acting in a threatening manner. The individual did not appear to be aware of the officer. It appears that the individual was shot multiple times before acknowledging the officer's presence.

It would appear that the officer acted too quickly and without correct judgement. The officer could have allowed sufficient time to assess the situation before acting (or awaited backup if he was unable to do so) as no immediate threat was reported.

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Posted by rs on 10/30/2013 at 11:14 PM

Nice article, very informative, Gabe Meline.

report 7 likes, 1 dislike   
Posted by Martin Kyle on 10/31/2013 at 11:03 AM

Now Erick Gelhaus will experiance the "Mean Gene"

report 7 likes, 3 dislikes   
Posted by Chris Robert on 10/31/2013 at 11:24 AM

Why would officers wait 11 hours when dealing with a man shooting a real gun and only wait 10 seconds when dealing with a teenager carrying a replica gun? Could it be that the man was a middle-aged business developer living in Fountaingrove, instead of a teenager in a hoodie walking in a largely Latino neighborhood?

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Posted by Nellie Bly on 10/31/2013 at 12:02 PM

From the newswire:

The same police officer who shot and killed a young teen after mistaking a toy gun for a real one pulled his weapon on a motorist during a routine traffic stop on the highway two months ago, the California driver in question now says.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus is currently on paid administrative leave after fatally shooting 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was walking to a friend’s house with a replica AK-47. The tragedy has made international headlines and frustrated the local community, with vigils and protests against the police taking place over the past ten days.

Jeff Westbrook, a program manager at an information technology company, now says that Gelhaus was the deputy who pulled him over on his August 21 commute for failing to signal a lane change. Westbrook told the San Francisco Chronicle that there was not much room to pull over on the side of the highway so he rolled down his window and asked Gelhaus if he should move his car to a safer spot.

It was at that point, Westbook said, that Gelhaus pulled a gun on him and began screaming an order for him to turn the car off. Westbrook responded that the car was already off.

“I felt like I was watching somebody I needed to help,” Westbrook said this week. “This was not right. He did not manage this correctly.”

Gelhaus then ordered Westbrook out of his vehicle and pulled a gun on him a second time when asking the commuter whether he had any weapons in the car. Westbrook asked why he had been pulled over and then felt compelled to ask, “Sir, is there something wrong with you?” The police officer did not answer.

Gelhaus’ attorney declined to comment on Westbrook’s accusations. The deputy is an Iraq War veteran who serves as a police field training officer and weapons instructor. A 24-year veteran of the force, he was training a new officer at the time of the shooting.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Gelahus had not fired his weapon at a suspect in over 20 years. He received the Medal of Valor in 2004 for rescuing passengers from a burning car and pulling them to safety.

Westbrook contacted a superior officer within the Sonoma police force and said he was considering filing an official complaint with the department. He said he informed Gelhaus’ sergeant that he felt the deputy had “emotional stability” problems and hoped to meet with Gelhaus to discuss the traffic stop.

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Posted by okie_flats on 11/01/2013 at 12:39 PM

I was once a Police Officer. I went to a precinct in a bad section of town in my personal car which was a convertible. I was in full uniform including badge and gunbelt. But...I was a white chick in a black neighborhood. Next time I know I am being pulled over and treated like a criminal. With his gun drawn the black officer order me to reach outside the car to open the door and get out with my hands up. Once he realized I was a fellow officer he said awe shit..go on. Funny? Hell nah...I didn't appreciate having a gun pulled on me, I wasn't speeding or breaking any laws..I was just a white chick in a black neighborhood. Normal traffic stops don't start with an officer drawing a gun on you...there are some real mentally disturbed officers on the streets and we need to get them off.

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Posted by Terry1984 on 11/01/2013 at 8:04 PM

Why is the company that manufactured this replica "toy gun" not also being scrutinized and held accountable also? That doesn't absolve a paramilitaristic pig for murdering Alex, but the "toy gun" sure seems like the main catalyst for this dreadful event.

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Posted by ForestvilleBill on 11/01/2013 at 9:39 PM

Why was he hired?...Military men that S.C.S.D. employed, have committed Gitmo, Cuba acts in Santa Rosa, Ca....Never hire military shooters that enjoy taking lives and displaying a personal physical "sexual' response from injury to others..Never!..But you have done so for years....We need a new justice system ruled by citizen's police and administrative review of our Sonoma County cities ..Sebastopol police officer upon Palm Drive Hospital administrative services and Seb.P.D. falsehood 5150's, felony mayhem upon suspects by officers brought to the Palm Drive such...This one of several examples of access to police controlling written reports of observations by medical personnel in the E.R....They create their diversions, use the hospital for kidnapping and make "hits."...Prisons for the criminal police are required...The Police Captains order the action...

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Posted by Brad Pipal on 11/02/2013 at 10:35 AM

Police are turning on average American citizens, even children. Police do put their lives on the line when on duty, but their paranoia has caused them to see enemies around every corner. Citizens could look to cops as friends, aiders, and rescuers. But citizens now have a fear of cops and for a very good reason. Can't the cops understand that the tables are turned and they are no longer our friends, our rescuers, but are now a very real source of danger to us? I fear cops now! I do not and can not trust them. They have become thieves, abusers, attackers, and killers. Their own lives are all that matter to them. And it has been so very easy for them to treat all of us citizens as hardened criminals because they get by with it. They are not punished for harming us, instead of protecting us; they are barely given a reprimand. The boy with the toy gun - a very tragic event and handled all wrong by the cop. He was shot before he ever knew the cop was present, before he had a chance to respond. He was shot in the back, a cowardly cop's shot, and then shot again and again and again - overkill!
We citizens have to get cops in line, now, and back to doing their jobs, as our protectors, aiders, rescuers, and friends. Otherwise, the NAZI PARTY will be alive and well in America. We are not bad people. Don't lump us all in with the really bad. Don't hire military people as cops.They were trained for warfare, to kill. We aren't the enemy! One cop was quoted as saying they just wanted to go home alive. What?! They actually believe the citizens are trying to kill them, to keep them from returning to their families at day's end? That's what we all want, to stay alive and return safely to our families. God help us all.

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Posted by Coke Ray on 11/03/2013 at 3:45 PM

I Am Andy Lopez:

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Posted by Karen Perry on 11/04/2013 at 3:32 PM

@ Jethro; a good shoot, and to say or imply that because the orange tip of a FAKE gun was missing that that is what makes it so...are you serious. help me out here guy, do u think this because orange is a universal color that automatically signals something to be a replica instead of the actual thing? And lets say hypothetically speaking you encountered a person carrying a gun that was pink? Would you then also think that it was fake... i hope not because you would be absolutely wrong!!!. A female customer in Season 1 Episode 3 of American Guns requested a custom hand gun to be made in the color pink and she got her gun. Is she any less dangerous because its pink... NO!
I urge you to think a bit more outside the box and less with mainstream thinking when considering a missing orange tip to be a deciding factor in your decision to render this tragedy a "good shot".

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Posted by Angela Dean on 11/15/2013 at 8:26 AM

Thank you for this detailed, unbiased article, about the sickening, unnecessary death of thirteen year old Andy Lopez.

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Posted by Glory Kennemer O'Rooney on 11/15/2013 at 5:41 PM
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