Smith: What youth are hearing at Andy Lopez protests

  • A demonstrator holds up the traffic citation he received as "a pedestrian in the roadway," as he stands in front of sheriff's deputies guarding the Hall of Justice during a protest march over the shooting death of Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, Calif., on November 26, 2013. Lopez, a 13-year-old, was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy on October 22, 2013 , while he was walking with an airsoft pellet gun that resembled an AK-47 assault rifle. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

The story Santa Rosa youth hear as they join activists in the streets to protest the killing of Andy Lopez is simple and compelling:

Andy was murdered by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, so justice must be demanded until the officer is held accountable. If Gelhaus is not charged with Andy's death, the narrative goes, that will be the next outrage.

Whether or not they want to hear it, young people incensed and anguished by Andy's death need to be told that most likely Deputy Gelhaus will not be charged with murder. Nor, most likely, should he be.

It serves the goals of some of the speakers at the current protests to declare that Gelhaus pulled his pistol and repeatedly shot a boy carrying what was obviously a harmless toy. But for that accusation to be true would be beyond extraordinary.

Unless proof is found to the contrary, Gelhaus almost certainly perceived and reacted to a threat that did not exist. He spotted Andy walking with a facsimile rifle and he made an error or errors in judgment.

Some don't want to hear that, that for a boy to be shot again and again could be deemed a mistake and not murder. But lives often are lost when people in responsible and critical jobs commit judgment errors — think of doctors, airline pilots, bridge builders, crane operators, train engineers.

If they err and people die it is horrendous, but it is not murder. Consequences are imperative, but vengeance is not acceptable.

Barring extraordinary findings, Andy Lopez died at the hands of a law-enforcement officer who was seeking to fulfill his duties but made a grievous error. And that doesn't fit with the script of some who address young marchers through bullhorns.

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