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."