PD Editorial: Getting Andy Lopez shooting inquiry right

  • 1/31/2014: A1: Jill Ravitch

    11/15/2013:A1: EXPLAINING THE INVESTIGATION: Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, left, speaks Thursday at Santa Rosa's Flamingo Hotel at a forum organized by Latino community leaders to discuss the Andy Lopez shooting. "If a crime occurred, criminal charges will be filed," she said. Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, center, and Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas also participated.

    PC: (l to r) Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm and Sheriff Steve Freitas talk about the investigation into the Andy Lopez shooting during a forum organized by the Latino leaderÕs group Los Cien at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa on Thursday, November 14, 2013. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa and Petaluma police last week delivered the long-awaited report on the Oct. 22 fatal shooting of Andy Lopez. The hard part now for the general public is recognizing that they're unlikely to know what that report says for several more months — if not more.

Why? It's not always clear. Unfortunately, waiting is part of the process of reviewing officer-involved shootings. In Sonoma County, an outside law enforcement agency investigates an incident and then hands the results over to the District Attorney's Office, which reviews the findings, possibly conducting its own investigation, before deciding whether to pursue charges.

This is where the delays really kick in. That second part can take anywhere from two months to nearly two years.

The guideline is to have the review done in about three months and then have the report reviewed by the county grand jury. But, according to statistics released Thursday by the District Attorney's Office, local prosecutors exceeded that amount of time in 23 out of the 30 police shootings, jail deaths and other officer-involved fatalities investigated since 2005.

The office of District Attorney Jill Ravitch has had a quicker turnaround than most. Since being elected in 2010, Ravitch has ruled on five such deaths. Three of those reviews took 90 days or less, meeting the department's guideline. But her average has been about four months. One review took more than seven months.

In this emotionally charged case, the public is probably willing to accept waiting a few more months, if the reason for the wait is fully explained. But anything longer will raise questions, especially political ones.

The timing is such that a longer wait means the report would come out either just before or after Ravitch's re-election bid on June 3. That would put Ravitch in the hot seat, forcing her to run on the results of the investigation or face questions concerning its delay.

It's already become election fodder for her chief opponent. On Friday, Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan, who is running in the June primary, accused Ravitch of failing to deliver on promises to reform how officer-involved deaths are reviewed in the county and to accelerate the process.

During her election bid in 2010, Ravitch said that the District Attorney's Office needed to speed up the process of reviewing officer-involved shootings. "We owe it to the people on the streets who wear badges," she said during one debate. In an online chat with the Press Democrat Editorial Board, she said victim's families and the community also have an interest in timely decisions.

But given that Ravitch's office has had this latest report less than a week, it seems far too early to accuse her of playing politics. More important, with the name, reputation and future of a sworn member of the Sheriff's Office at stake, making the right decision on whether to pursue charges against Deputy Erick Gelhaus is more important than politics.

The district attorney's best hope of not allowing this to become overly political is to clearly explain to the public what the follow-up process entails and why the long wait is necessary — particularly given that most criminal cases are presented in court within about 72 hours after an arrest — and get it done as soon as possible.

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