As prosecutors decide whether to file criminal charges against the Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez, government leaders, law enforcement officials and local activists are taking steps to defuse the potential for violent protests after the decision is announced.
A conciliation specialist from the U.S. Department of Justice has been dispatched to Santa Rosa to train dozens of "goodwill ambassadors" to act as peacemakers if tensions flare between police and protesters.
The Sheriff's Office is rescheduling work shifts to ensure a maximum number of deputies are available, if needed, to respond to any trouble when prosecutors announce their decision, Sheriff Steve Freitas said. Deputies are receiving ongoing crowd-control training, he said.
"We will absolutely do our best to defend people's right to protest and demonstrate," Freitas said. "But we will take action if people vandalize property or injure people. Hopefully, that won't happen."
Freitas said he didn't know when District Attorney Jill Ravitch will announce her decision on whether to file charges against veteran Deputy Erick Gelhaus. She has been reviewing a Santa Rosa police report on the killing since January.
Ravitch could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. She has refused to commit to a timetable for her decision, saying she is not bound by a 90-day guideline set forth in a countywide protocol for ruling on officer-involved shootings.
Protesters are urging her to charge Gelhaus with murder for the Oct. 22 killing. Lopez was shot seven times as he walked along Moorland Avenue with what Gelhaus said he thought was an assault rifle. It turned out to be an airsoft BB gun designed to resemble an AK-47.
Jonathan Melrod, an organizer in the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez, said he believes the decision could come this week.
Protesters will take to the streets regardless of the outcome. Organizers will gather at 4 p.m. outside the Dollar Store on Sebastopol Road the day of the decision and at 5:30 p.m. in Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa the day after.
Melrod said he hoped to avoid any confrontation with police.
"We'd probably be the losers in that scenario," Melrod said.
The Board of Supervisors this week received a report on the progress of a community and law enforcement group that was formed in the wake of the killing.
Among its goals is to promote safe protests. Assistant County Administrator Chris Thomas said 35 volunteers were trained as goodwill ambassadors or "self marshals." A second training session was being scheduled, he said.
Melrod said the training came from Marquez Equilibria, a conciliation specialist sent to Santa Rosa by the federal government. Melrod said Equilibria made a presentation to ambassadors about strategies to reduce potential violence.
Equilibria declined to comment, saying his work in the community is confidential. His LinkedIn page says he intervenes in conflicts stemming from racial profiling and officer-involved shootings.
"It's like the city is on pins and needles at the moment," Melrod said.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the Lopez family are expected to be in federal court in Oakland on Thursday to discuss whether a stay on their civil lawsuit against Gelhaus and the county should be lifted.
Three months ago, Ravitch asked the judge to block any action, including deposing witnesses, until she completed her criminal review.