Intense scrutiny is focused on Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch this election season as she makes a bid for a second term in office.
The county's top law enforcement officer must decide whether to bring criminal charges against a veteran Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy last fall after reportedly mistaking a BB gun he was carrying for an AK-47 rifle.
Like no other active case, the killing of Andy Lopez has polarized the county's half-million residents, leading to protest marches and calls for civilian police oversight. It's focused keen interest in the county's criminal justice system, raising questions about accountability and fairness.
But a local political analyst said the attention is not likely to cost Ravitch as she faces a challenge from a political novice, Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan. Ravitch, a respected trial attorney first elected in 2010, enjoys widespread community support and superior financial resources.
"All things being equal, the incumbent wins," said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University. "But the degree to which voters write in 'Andy Lopez' illustrates their frustration."
Ravitch has refused to state how long she will take to decide whether to charge Lopez's shooter, Deputy Erick Gelhaus. She acknowledged the Lopez killing has "marked our community in ways I haven't seen since I came here 24 years ago."
"All of us have a responsibility in trying to address the pain we feel and to work through it," Ravitch said. "But I have to separate that from my job as district attorney. My job is to determine if criminal conduct occurred."
The issue has emerged as a key campaign topic and source of disagreement.
Shanahan, who wants changes in the way the county investigates officer-involved shootings, criticized her boss of the last 3-1/2 years for not handing off the case to the state attorney general. She said Ravitch has a conflict of interest because she is a political ally of Sheriff Steve Freitas, who also is running for re-election. Ravitch denies the claim.
Shanahan says future incidents should be investigated by sworn district attorney staff members rather than an alternating slate of police agencies, as called for under the current county protocol. Ravitch is opposed to the idea, saying in a recent debate her office lacks the resources to take on the complicated investigations.
Ravitch has chastised Shanahan for mentioning Lopez in her campaign, calling it "shameful." Her supporters say Shanahan would need to recuse herself from all officer-involved incidents if she were elected because her husband is a sheriff's deputy, assigned to patrol.
Shanahan bristles at the suggestion.
"If I were a man and married to a woman cop, somehow I don't think it would be a problem," Shanahan said. "There's a perception that my husband dictates my decision-making process. I'm an independent thinker."
The two registered Democrats each said they support some type of community oversight, although Ravitch said questions remain about who would appoint members to any panel and what the scope of such a group would be.
Shanahan said she wants a criminal grand jury to look at "close-call" officer-related deaths, and she urges changes to current policy that allows the police department being investigated to suggest changes to the district attorney's final report before it is announced to the public.