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In response to last month's shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, a group of local Latino leaders met with Sonoma County's top law enforcement officials Thursday and called on them to change a police culture which they believe views Latino communities as "war zones."

The plea was made during a forum organized by Los Cien, a Latino leadership group, to open a dialog after the shooting with Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Sheriff Steve Freitas and Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm.

Irene Rosario, a Moorland Avenue resident who works as a field representative with SEIU Local 1021, said whenever police officers or sheriff's deputies enter such neighborhoods as Moorland Avenue, Steele Lane or South Park, "officers that come into the community already have a mindset that criminals are there and we need to get them."

"And I'm not saying they shouldn't do that, but I don't believe that mindset is that prevalent in other communities." she said. "And how do we address that?"

Mariano Guzman, a past president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and local business owner, said that while he appreciates the dangers law enforcement officers face daily, their attitudes toward members of the Latino community need to change.

"I could get stopped tomorrow — it doesn't matter who I am, it's what I look like — it's the attitude of that officer that comes to my window that scares me," said Guzman.

Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, said there is a perception in the Latino community that law enforcement actions are colored by their attitudes toward the Latino community.

"The community feels treated less like a neighborhood and more like a war zone," Maldonado said.

Both Schwedhelm and Freitas agreed that more steps must to be taken to build trust between local law enforcement and communities they police.

Freitas said he has tried to take measures to bridge that gap, citing the department's citizens academy and his "customer service" philosophy he stresses with deputies.

"Changing a culture, though, takes time," he said.

Freitas said that recent budget cuts have also dealt a blow to community outreach efforts, and in some cases, community-related training has been "on our own."

"I'm not here to cry for more money, but a lot of the people that did the things that you say we should do are gone," he said. "You have me convinced, but the 500 and some odd deputies that I have, they need to hear from you, too."

The forum at the Flamingo Hotel gave each of the guests an opportunity to discuss their role in the ongoing criminal investigation into the death of Andy Lopez, who was shot by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy on Oct. 22.

Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran with the Sheriff's Office, told police he fired at Lopez because he thought the boy's airsoft BB gun — which looked like an AK-47 assault rifle — was a deadly weapon. But critics question whether Gelhaus gave Lopez enough time to understand what was happening.

At the start of the forum, Freitas again expressed "personal sadness and sorrow" over the shooting, adding that he hoped the local community could work together "to prevent something like this from happening again."

Freitas explained the two-decade-old law enforcement protocol that put the Santa Rosa Police Department in charge of the criminal investigation into the shooting. Review of the investigation is the responsibility of the District Attorney's Office.

"Is that the best system? Are there better systems? I don't know. I'm open to that conversation," he said. "But I do believe it's better than me doing my own investigation of my own employees. And quite frankly that's what happens in most counties in California. That is still the model. What we do is somewhat unique."

Schwedhelm stressed that the criminal investigation is being handled by seasoned professionals and will be as thorough as possible.

"These are the most qualified investigators we have," he said. "Those are the folks that are taking the lead."

"How long will it take? As long as it takes," Schwedhelm said. "Because if there is someone in this community who has information that would help us with this case, I want to hear from them."

Schwedhelm assured the audience that the investigation would be transparent.

"I consider Steve a personal friend, but there is also something in law enforcement — ethics and integrity, and Steve knows this," he said.

"We have a job to do as professional law enforcement officers. We'll find out what occurred here, regardless of the relationship Steve and I have and Jill and I have."

Ravitch also expressed her "deepest sympathies" for the Lopez family. She said her office's responsibility is to ensure the police investigation is thorough and complete and that "no stone is left unturned."

"When the investigation comes to my office, I can do further investigation if necessary," she said, adding that she has assigned one her senior chief deputy DA's along with a senior investigator with over 30 years experience in law enforcement, "who has investigated these kinds of officer-involved incidents in the past."

Ravitch's office is charged with determining whether a crime was committed by Gelhaus.

"If a crime occurred, criminal charges will be filed," she said. "If we determine that a crime did not occur, the protocol allows for me to release a report, a written report as to the reasons why I determined there was no criminal activity involved."

She said that report, along with the results of the police investigation, will be provided to the county grand jury.

The FBI has also said it is investigating the incident to determine if there were any violations of federal civil rights laws. Ravitch said the agency's role is unclear.

"I have spoken with representatives of the FBI, and with all due respect to the FBI, I don't really understand exactly what their role is at this point," she said. "They say things that I'm having a really hard time understanding. They are aware of the situation. My sense is that they are monitoring the situation. I am not aware of any active investigation on their part."

But she said the FBI will also be provided with a copy of all crime reports at the conclusion of the investigation, "so that they can undertake whatever further activity they choose to take with regard to this incident."

Ravitch also said that she asked the State Attorney General's office to review whether or not her office had a conflict of interest because of her prior association with the law enforcement community. She said the Attorney General's Office found no conflict.

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