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The Sonoma County grand jury is ill-suited to act as a civilian review board investigating police handling of critical incidents, say two members of the jury.

The panelists cite what they describe as the grand jury's lack of transparency, diversity and expertise reviewing fatal or otherwise serious incidents involving law enforcement.

"I think this is not the appropriate body for civilian review," said Cheryl Davey of Santa Rosa, the jury forewoman.

The comments, offered in public forums and in interviews this month, add to an ongoing debate spurred by calls for stronger law enforcement oversight in the wake of the shooting death last fall of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy.

They also act as an indirect rebuttal to prior statements by Sheriff Steve Freitas that the grand jury was a capable, independent oversight body for law enforcement.

Freitas spoke in the aftermath of the shooting of Lopez in October and in the face of a campaign by critics and activists who have questioned whether the Santa Rosa Police Department, which investigated the shooting, and the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office are capable of objectively determining whether the boy's death was justified or a criminal act.

The grand jury, which has subpoena powers, provides a review by "people totally independent from law enforcement . . . who are open to criticizing law enforcement in an open and transparent way," Freitas said at the time.

But last week he said he would not dispute the grand jurors' assessment, adding that he would reserve judgment on an alternative model until the details are spelled out.

"I'm open to the idea of citizen review," Freitas said.

Davey, the jury forewoman, and Martin Jones, another grand jury member, raised their concerns at a March 3 meeting of a subcommittee of the 21-member community task force established by the county in the wake of Lopez's death. The task force is charged with reviewing options and ultimately recommending a model for an "independent citizen review body."

Use of the grand jury as it is, or with variations, was cited as one of the options to be considered.

But the grand jury, at least in its current structure, shouldn't be on that list, the two jury members said in interviews last week.

They said the panel's $77,000 annual budget can't support the hiring of outside experts. Also, the jury's final report is its only public statement, its deliberations by legal requirement are entirely secret and its recommendations have no legal force.

"A civil grand jury is not the place to conduct review of critical incidents," said Jones, a Santa Rosa wine industry management consultant.

The panel's lack of diversity is another key problem, Jones and Davey said. Members are volunteers who are interviewed and screened by a Superior Court judge and then selected by drawing.

Jones said his demographic profile of the current grand jury showed that the average age of the 18 jurors is 65 and only two are younger than 60; 17 are white, one is African-American and they all are retired, work part time or are self-employed. One jury slot is vacant.

The jury is "not representative of a cross-section of the community," Jones said.

A civilian review board ought to include young and old, people of color and members of law enforcement, Davey said.

Davey and Jones said they were speaking for themselves, not the grand jury as a whole. Davey was invited to the subcommittee meeting as the forewoman and said she included Jones because he is interested in the matter.

Napa County's grand jury officially disqualified itself from police oversight in a report last year, and a national expert on civilian review of law enforcement acknowledged some shortcomings inherent in the grand jury process.

The jury, under current law, is not required to take on a critical incident, nor is it allowed to continue an investigation past the June 30 end date for each grand jury, the Napa jurors said.

Grand juries can be "a valuable tool in holding police agencies accountable," Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to police oversight, said in an interview.

But their secrecy conflicts with the principle of "shining a light" on law enforcement investigations that have traditionally been opaque, he said.

A civil grand jury's primary role is to investigate the performance of public agencies and "make recommendations for positive change," Davey said.

But the jury has no budget to hire experts to assist in their investigations, which Jones said is a "huge impediment" to functioning as a civilian review board.

"We are not trained investigators," Davey said.

Freitas said he considers the grand jury "a form of citizen review," but he said he won't quarrel with the jurors' contention that it may not be the ideal approach.

"I would respect their thought on that," he said.

Asked if members of law enforcement are averse to civilian review, Freitas said, "I've heard from many people in law enforcement that they have a good relationship with their civilian review."

Freitas said he agreed with the idea that a police review panel should be diverse. "Any advisory group should as much as possible reflect the community," he said.

In cases of officer-involved shootings, the county grand jury has limited its scope to a determination of whether police investigators followed a protocol established by the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs' Association, which includes the Sheriff's Office and the county's nine municipal police departments.

During its 2012-13 term, the jury reviewed the fatal shooting of an armed suspect by a Sebastopol police officer responding to a domestic disturbance on Nov. 24, 2011.

The shooting was justified because the suspect brandished a pistol and refused to back down, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said four months later.

In its one-page report on the case, the grand jury said that "review of the critical incident report confirmed the required protocols were followed." No recommendation was made.

Davey and Jones presented their views on the grand jury's capabilities at meeting of the community task force's Law Enforcement Accountability Subcommittee, which is exploring options for a civilian review board.

Todd Mendoza, a Petaluma real estate broker who is chairman of the subcommittee, said last week he had drawn no conclusion regarding the grand jury's proper role.

"It's really premature to say what would work and what wouldn't," he said in an interview. "We haven't gone down the road with civilian review models."

Robert Edmonds, a subcommittee member, said he was skeptical of the grand jury's suitability as a police review body because of its secrecy, which is mandated by law, and one-year time limit for investigations.

Lack of transparency "doesn't lead to trust in the community," said Edmonds, a Santa Rosa Junior College student trustee.

Edmonds also noted that a grand jury is "self-directed" and that no local entity can set standards for how it operates.

The meeting with the two grand jurors confirmed his views, Edmonds said.

"I think it was pretty clear to our entire subcommittee that the grand jury isn't what we're after," he said.

Task force member Joe Palla, a Cloverdale city councilman and former Healdsburg police chief, said the grand jury as it stands "would not work" as a civilian review board. But with adequate budget and staffing "it may be a vehicle with some teeth," he said.

Napa County's grand jury investigated the fatal shooting of a man by Napa police on Nov. 28, 2010, in the city's Alta Heights neighborhood, reviewing police documents and conducting its own interviews with witnesses.

In a June 2012 report, the jury recommended formation of a civilian review board to examine officer-involved shootings, but several local governments said the jury should take on that role.

The jury, in response, said the suggestion was "erroneous," citing the time constraints imposed by a jury's annual term.

Lopez was shot by Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus on Oct. 22 after Gelhaus reportedly mistook the airsoft BB gun Lopez was carrying on a street near his Moorland Avenue home for a real assault rifle.

The shooting prompting a series of protests and calls for change.

Civilian review advocates have pointed out that the county, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park failed to implement review boards recommended by a U.S. Civil Rights Commission's advisory committee in 2000, in the aftermath of a series of fatal incidents involving law enforcement.

The civil rights committee noted that the grand jury lacks financial independence and organizational separation from local law enforcement.

Meanwhile, the community task force studying the issue has failed to meet its initial February deadline for submitting a report on civilian review options. Edmonds said county officials have acknowledged the work will take longer than expected.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the community is anxious for responses to Lopez's death, but the task force, which has met five times since Jan. 13, needs time to do "quality work."

"They're moving ahead," Zane said. "We expect they'll get back to us soon."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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