Erick Gelhaus returned to work last week following a preliminary finding announced by Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Due?s:
"We're not done yet," Due?s cautioned. "I'm just saying that based on what we know and based on what we have, it doesn't look like there was a violation of policy."
Gelhaus, of course, is the deputy who shot Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy carrying a BB gun that closely resembled an assault rifle.
His return to duty, on a desk job, sparked a new round of demonstrations, but the sheriff's findings weren't any big surprise. Law enforcement officers are given broad discretion to use deadly force when they believe their lives or the lives of others are in danger, and they're seldom second-guessed by their supervisors — at least publicly.
That's why another development, largely overshadowed by the protests, shouldn't be overlooked.
Sonoma County supervisors have ordered a review of police training and operations, including the policies governing the use of lethal force.
The review, to be completed in the first half of 2014, was one of several actions taken by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 3. Among the others were endorsing an Andy Lopez memorial park, allocating $250,000 to buy lapel cameras for sheriff's deputies and creating a task force to make recommendations about citizen oversight of law enforcement and community policing, a model that promotes increased contact between peace officers and the public.
They're all commendable responses, but two — the review of training and operations and community policing — stand out. Why? They focus on what happens <i>before</i> shots are fired, rather than on assessing what happened <i>after</i> shots are fired.
A lethal force policy must balance officer safety with the risk of a tragic mistake, an Andy Lopez.
The existing policy might be the appropriate balance. It may need to be adjusted. It ought to be the subject of regular scrutiny, and the results of the county's inquiry should be presented publicly to ensure that citizens understand when and why law enforcement officers are authorized to use deadly force.
Community policing, meanwhile, might help ease the obvious tension between law enforcement and the public in some parts of Sonoma County.
The idea is to increase familiarity by assigning officers to specific neighborhoods or communities and, as much as possible, getting them out of their patrol cars and interacting with the public. The goals include identifying and solving problems to prevent crime and enhance public safety.
The Sheriff's Office, like many other law enforcement agencies in Sonoma County and across the country, has practiced community policing. But budget cuts have left many of these agencies without the resources required to keep it up.
If the supervisors decide to restore that approach, their challenge will be finding the money to pay for it.
Regardless of the sheriff's preliminary findings, the Gelhaus case isn't over. Santa Rosa police are conducting a separate investigation, and District Attorney Jill Ravitch must determine whether there was criminal wrongdoing in the death of Andy Lopez. There's also a federal lawsuit pending.
All of those involve accountability, a vital ingredient in public confidence. The supervisors are exploring an equally vital issue: prevention.