Sonoma County law enforcement officials promised a crowded community forum on Thursday that they will eventually answer the many questions surrounding the shooting death of Andy Lopez, but declined to discuss details of the case.
"I can assure you that once the decision is made, it will be a very public decision and my hope is that everybody understands the reason for my decision," said District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who will determine whether sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus acted properly when he shot the Santa Rosa teenager on Oct. 22.
"But until that time, there may be information you're not made aware of, and that's the nature of an investigation, so that the integrity can be protected," she said.
Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Due?s refused to answer several pointed questions from audience members about why Gelhaus shot the youth seven times. He said the department is committed to examining its policies and procedures critically.
"What I can tell you is once the case is investigated and we look at it (through) an administrative review, we'll be able to answer some of those questions more thoroughly," he said. "But right now I can't say that it was overkill or wasn't overkill. We have to look at all the facts."
Santa Rosa Junior College hosted the forum in response to the shooting, which has generated protests, vigils, marches and meetings over the last three weeks.
Gelhaus shot Lopez after spotting him walking along Moorland Avenue in the middle of the afternoon carrying an airsoft BB gun that resembled an AK-47 rifle. Gelhaus told investigators that he believed the gun was real and was afraid the youth would shoot after he did not comply with a command to drop the gun and began turning toward the deputy.
Critics, however, have questioned whether Gelhaus gave Lopez sufficient time to understand who was yelling at him and comply with the order. Protesters in recent weeks have demanded that Ravitch file criminal charges against Gelhaus, but she has said that would be premature since the investigation is far from complete.
Thursday's forum, which featured a panel of law enforcement officials and activists, drew hundreds of students and members of the public. While the discussion was polite, many members of the panel and the audience were clearly suspicious of the law enforcement officials.
They expressed doubt that the Santa Rosa Police Department would be completely impartial in its outside investigation of the deputy's actions, or that Ravitch would risk alienating the officers she relies on for testimony in pursuing criminal cases.
"We have to demand that a system of review is put into place that isn't solely in the hands of law enforcement that routinely rely on upon each other for their lives in the everyday performance of their duty," said longtime police critic Robert Edmonds, who is also a student trustee at junior college. His remark drew applause and cheers from the crowd.
He urged the crowd to continue to protest, saying that outrage over previous police shootings failed to mobilize people sufficiently.
"We have to demand change," he said. "And if people start to let this die, then more people are going to die, and that's the bottom line."
Civil rights activist Rev. Ann Gray Byrd said the question of police accountability has been hot for decades, pointing to a county grand jury report in 1998 that called for better law enforcement recruitment of minorities and more outside oversight of police agencies. She noted similar conclusions nationally in 1999 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.