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Santa Rosa Police Department signs on with controversial 'Cops' TV show

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UP IN LIGHTS  ‘Cops’ episodes featuring the Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office will likely air in late 2018.
  • UP IN LIGHTS ‘Cops’ episodes featuring the Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office will likely air in late 2018.

As it set out to participate in the television show Cops, described in January by the online Marshall Project as "the most polarizing reality TV show in America," the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office put the department's most polarizing officer in a lead role as liaison with the show's producer, Zach Ragsdale.

Electronic communications obtained by the Bohemian between SCSO Sgt. Spencer Crum and Sgt. Erick Gelhaus indicate that Gelhaus was the first SCSO swing-shift officer to liaison with Cops producer Ragsdale, in late February.

Gelhaus remains the subject of a federal civil-rights lawsuit stemming from an incident in 2013 where the officer, then a deputy, shot and killed a 13-year-old Latino Santa Rosan who was carrying a replica assault weapon. According to the emails, Gelhaus is the swing-shift officer on Monday through Thursday. He was promoted to sergeant after the Lopez shooting.

In its aftermath, the Andy Lopez shooting did much to damage community relations between the city's Latino community and its sworn peace officers—at both the SCSO and the Santa Rosa Police Department.

The Lopez family sued Gelhaus and Sonoma County, which has, since 2007, paid out some $4 million in legal settlements stemming from excessive-force suits against the sheriff's department.

The Lopez shooting gave rise to the creation of the county's Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, which was not contacted by SCSO before its management team decided to sign on with Cops. And, after a long delay, the Santa Rosa Police Department has signed its own contract with Cops as of this week.

Lt. Richard Kohut wrote the Bohemian on May 1 with the news: "We are moving forward with a May 15th start date, and I anticipate filming to last six to eight weeks."

The sheriff's office signed on with the Santa Monica–based production company in March and film crews have been doing ride-alongs with deputies for the upcoming 31st season of the program, which will now feature officers of both the SRPD and SCSO. The program will likely air later this year.

Emails obtained by the Bohemian also indicate that three other sergeants who work either the swing or graveyard shifts are participating in the program, along with deputies who work those shifts.

Gelhaus appears to have emerged as the SCSO point-person based on Ragsdale's schedule. Crum, the agency's public information officer, has flat out said no to any suggestion that its decision to contract with Cops had anything to do with an upcoming documentary about the Lopez shooting, which may also find a national audience.

On Feb. 26, Crum wrote to Gelhaus:

"The producer from Langley Productions (COPS TV show), Zach Ragsdale, from COPS would like to ride along on swing shift this Wednesday night. If possible, I'd like him to attend [a] briefing to initially introduce himself and seek some buy-in from the deputies. Hopefully he can be put with a proactive deputy to show him around the county. If all is approved, we will probably have them filming with a crew here in mid-March."

A couple of back-and-forth emails then indicates that Gelhaus was not available on that Wednesday, but was available on Thursday to meet with Barksdale.

Crum then wrote to Barksdale: "I've got you set up with a swing shift ride along this Thursday. Briefing starts at 4:15 PM. Ask for Sgt. Erick Gelhaus. I thought if you go to briefing you can meet the guys, let them know what we are planning and get their initial buy-in."

This exchange happened before the SCSO signed the contract with Langley Productions.

On March 2, Crum wrote to Ragsdale: "How was the ride along?? Probably boring. I guess at 0300 hours we had a burglary of an armored car place with an officer involved shooting when the SRPD officers confronted [an] armed bad guy. We took 2 into custody. Shot suspect should live. Go figure, you probably missed it by an hour."

Ragsdale responded later that day: "Just landed back in TX. It was good! Both deputies were really good guys. I had fun even though it was relatively quite [sic] while I was there. We call it the COPS curse. I have always said departments should hire us to ride during our off season to keep their crime stats down. Looking forward to seeing the stories the crews get especially from the [Russian] River!"

According to emails obtained by the Bohemian, Kohut arranged an initial ride-along with Ragsdale back in February, months before any contract had been signed.

The SRPD has not addressed the potentially awkward optics of Gelhaus showing up on a nationally televised reality show later this year, given his controversial presence locally. SRPD Captain Rainer Navarro says via email that "I am not aware of how or what the Sheriff's Department did in February with the show."

Asked to describe Gelhaus' participation in Cops, Crum wrote that "Sgt. Gelhaus is a swing shift patrol sergeant who holds briefings for patrol deputies. He wasn't involved in the decision to contract with COPS or the production of COPS."

Ragsdale has not responded to the Bohemian's attempts to contact him, so it's not known if he was aware of Gelhaus' history when Crum put the two men together in February. And it's not known whether Gelhaus will wind up on the show. Under the contract it signed with Langley, the SCSO has the final say over what clips will air.

Other emails obtained by the Bohemian show that not everyone in Sonoma County was on board with the proposal from Langley Productions.

Sonoma County Deputy Counsel Joshua Myers gave the county's blessing to the proposed contract on March 13, and it was signed shortly thereafter by the unelected SCSO sheriff, Rob Giordano. Windsor Town Manager John Jansons then wrote Giordano, on March 20, and requested "that Windsor is not included in your COPS TV show project" (emphasis in the original email).

That same day, SCSO Capt. Al Vernon wrote to Crum and asked that he "please make sure that the COPS TV crew does not film any of our deputies assigned to the Sonoma Police Department or the Town of Windsor."

Giordano responded to Jansons, "Your city your contract, you will not be in COPS. Thanks for reaching out. My apologies for not talking to you ahead of time. My oversight."

"We already hold a strong affinity for law enforcement in Windsor so I see no point in us participating in COPS episodes," says Jansons via email.

The sheriff's oversight in contacting county officials about Cops also extended to Jerry Threet, the head of the IOLERO, who says he did not know about the Cops contract until after it was signed.

In an email between Giordano and Threet dated March 29, Threet reports that, based on a call from the Bohemian, he reached out to Crum about "views and concerns around your agency working with the Cops program," and wanted to make sure Giordano was aware of them.

Threet said that while there was potential value to the agency (Langley promotes its program as being great for morale and recruitment when it pitches law enforcement agencies), "Cops tends to focus on incidents that portray community members in a very negative light, resulting in comic caricatures that do not truly represent those communities. If this happens with your agency, it could prove damaging to relationships with vulnerable communities (such as Latinos, immigrants, low-income folks, and the mentally ill and homeless)."

"I also wanted to share," Threet wrote, "that I have heard from several community members over the last few days who are concerned about the agency's decision to appear on Cops. Their main concern is how this may affect the agency's relationship with the Latino/immigrant community."

Giordano thanked him for his note.

Emails obtained by the Bohemian give credence to the supposition that there was significant in-house enthusiasm within the SRPD for participation in Cops, even as city council members Julie Combs and Ernesto Olivares were against it, as the Bohemian reported last month.

This story has been updated with a comment from Windsor Town Manager John Jansons

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