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Shirlee Zane critical of decision to return Andy Lopez shooter to patrol


Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane is publicly criticizing the way Sheriff Steve Freitas handled the decision to return to patrol duty the deputy who shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez, calling it a “slap in the face” to the community still grieving over the teen’s death.

In an op-ed piece published in Friday’s Press Democrat, Zane and Francisco Vázquez, a Sonoma State University history professor, say they were “blindsided” by the decision and take Freitas to task for not involving the supervisors or a community task force in the decision.

“Yes, the Sheriff has the legal right to put deputy Gelhaus back on the streets wherever he needs him,” the pair wrote. “But to assert that right without consultation with other members of an implicit social contract is inconsiderate at best and an arrogance of power at worst.”

Vázquez is one of Zane’s appointees to the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force established after the Oct. 22 shooting. He serves on the Community Healing Subcommittee of that body.

Freitas declined to discuss the views raised in the piece.

“I support people expressing their opinion whether I agree with them or not,” Freitas said. “I don’t think it benefits the people of Sonoma County to get into a war of words over this decision.”

Zane said she and her board colleagues learned last Thursday that the decision had been made to return Deputy Erick Gelhaus to active patrol duty on Tuesday.

The firearms expert and Iraq War veteran shot Lopez seven times on the outskirts of southwest Santa Rosa as the teen carried a plastic BB gun designed to look like an AK-47 assault rifle. The shooting made national news and sparked weeks of cross-town marches and protests in the streets of Santa Rosa and at city and county government buildings. Lopez’s family has sued both the county and Gelhaus in federal court, contending the boy’s civil rights were violated.

Gelhaus returned to work in December in an administrative capacity, including a post with the department’s armory. District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced July 7 that an investigation by her office determined the shooting was not a criminal act.

Word that Gelhaus would return to patrol came to Zane in an email from Sheriff’s Cpt. Glenn Lawrence. The email noted that The Press Democrat had learned of the reassignment before sheriff’s officials had time to brief supervisors.

Zane, who called the email “shocking,” said she reached out as instructed by the email to the Sheriff’s Office’s public information officer, Sgt. Cecile Focha, and “got a wall there.” She then tried to reach Freitas, and was told he was on vacation. Finally she spoke to Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas and expressed her disappointment that the decision hadn’t been made more collaboratively.

“Leadership is not about making decisions in isolation; it’s about listening to the wise counsel of others,” Zane said in an interview Thursday.

The Press Democrat published its article about Gelhaus’ reassignment online last Friday evening. About 40 residents protested the decision outside the Sheriff’s Department headquarters Saturday afternoon, several saying it would force children in the Moorland Avenue neighborhood to live in fear.

On Monday, a number of protesters attended the subcommittee’s public meeting to express similar frustrations. “We got a lot of very angry, sad and fearful feedback from the community,” Vázquez said in an interview Thursday.

Many residents demanded subcommittee members explain where they stood on the issue and that they ask the same question to the supervisors who appointed them, Vázquez said.

“My personal opinion was the way that it was done was not appropriate given the kind of work we have been doing to heal the community,” Vázquez said.

He said he later relayed the concerns of protesters to Zane and discussed collaborating with her on an op-ed piece.

Supervisors also received an earful from protesters at their Tuesday meeting, many of them young Latino residents, Zane said.

“There was a lot of sadness, a lot of emotion and it was really hard to listen to and not be able to give them answers at all,” Zane said. “I had to fight back the tears a few times.”

Steady news coverage of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown should have driven home the importance of not taking a business-as-usual approach to such emotional situations, she said.

“Given what’s been going on in the news for the last week, when you have tragedies of this proportion, it’s not about a by-the-book response, it’s about how do we work together,” she said.

She said the board has worked collaboratively with the Sheriff’s Department on many issues following the Lopez shooting, including the formation of the task force and funding for lapel cameras, she said.

“We’ve all worked so hard, and I think this feels like a setback,” she said.

Other supervisors either did not return calls or were hesitant to level similar charges against Freitas.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin stressed that while the supervisors control his budget, Freitas is an independently elected official who does not need to consult with supervisors on operational issues.

“Budget approval authority does not translate in my mind into authority over hiring, firing and work assignments,” Gorin said.

Neither Chairman David Rabbitt nor 4th District Supervisor Mike McGuire could be reached for comment .

Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the community’s response shows it remains in pain.

“The impact of Deputy Gelhaus’ work assignment decision by sheriff Freitas is evidence of how deep the wounds remain our community and how far we still need to go in the healing process,” Carrillo said.

Zane stressed she wasn’t taking issue with Freitas’ right to make the decision, merely that others should have been kept in the loop. While she said she understood he was on vacation, she said he could have explained his decision this week at either the task force subcommittee meeting or the supervisors meeting.

She contrasted Freitas’ response with that of Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who earlier this week stood before angry crowds in a church to answer questions about two officers’ fatal shooting of a mentally ill man.

With a little more heads up, the task force could have arranged a community forum to give residents a feeling their concerns were being heard, Vázquez said.

“If we’re doing all of this work, common sense would dictate that you may want to touch base with the people who are on the forefront,” he said.