<i>Editor's note: This is the third in a series of editorials on changes we believe the community should explore in the aftermath of the Oct. 22 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy.</i><br>
Will the Santa Rosa police thoroughly and objectively investigate the death of Andy Lopez?
A variation on that question is asked after almost every officer-involved shooting. Change the names of the cop and the victim, but the fundamental concern is the same: Is there an insurmountable conflict of interest when one law enforcement agency polices another?
We're not convinced.
However, the appearance of a conflict is undeniable. And the erosion of trust in large segments of the community is unmistakable.
The time to talk is now.
But there's no benefit in recycling the same tired points. Unfortunately, in the four weeks since Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot Andy Lopez, that's really all we have heard.
Demonstrators are calling for a civilian review, and law enforcement officials are offering assurances that they are delivering exactly that. "We have right now a civilian grand jury that automatically reviews each protocol case," Sheriff Steve Freitas said. "They review every one."
Here is the most recent report on an officer-involved shooting in Sonoma County: "The Grand Jury's review of the critical incident report confirmed that required protocols were followed." The rest is boilerplate. How did the grand jurors reach their conclusion? Your guess is as good as ours. The proceedings are secret.
That's one reason why a federal advisory committee that reviewed police shootings in Sonoma County concluded that the grand jury isn't an appropriate venue for civilian review. The committee also expressed reservations about the grand jury's close association with the District Attorney's Office, which participates in all officer-involved shooting investigations and determines whether any criminal charges are warranted.
The commission recommended civilian review boards for Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and the Sheriff's Office. It encouraged other cities to consider forming their own panels.
A civilian review board would eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest. However, there are a number of important issues that have yet to be addressed.
Among them are cost and recruiting. An independent review board would need investigators, and they would need specialized skills. Moreover, there probably won't be enough work to justify a permanent staff, much less separate staffs for multiple review boards, so qualified investigators probably would have to be located and hired after every officer-involved shooting.
Someone almost certainly will suggest forming a single review board with countywide jurisdiction. The county and the cities couldn't agree on a plastic bag ordinance. How are they going to settle on a civilian review process? It probably would be subject to collective bargaining, too.
Even if all those obstacles are cleared, a civilian review board has one big shortcoming: secrecy.
Six years after the civil rights commission made its recommendations, the state Supreme Court slammed the door on public access to police commissions and civilian review boards, ruling that complaints against law enforcement officers, disciplinary proceedings and any associated records are confidential. Legislation to overturn the decision failed amid fierce lobbying by police unions.
Without public access, a civilian review isn't much better than the present system.
We supported efforts to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling, and we encourage local legislators to try again. We call on the district attorney to release to the public as much of every officer-involved shooting report as legally possible. To the extent they aren't muzzled, we think city councils and the Board of Supervisors should convene public hearings on these reports and question investigators about their work and how to avoid police shootings.