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The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office for the first time held a public forum Monday to discuss its response to changes recommended by a panel studying the agency’s relationship with the community after a deputy shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez in October 2013.

While the discussion also delved into the department’s recently finalized body-camera policy, its hiring strategies to improve diversity and the recent hiatus of the community-policing program, members of the public repeatedly asked one question: Where was Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas?

“We’re talking for the first time about the actual nuts-and-bolts of the recommendations, but where is the sheriff? Why isn’t he here?” Scott Wagner of Cotati asked.

Assistant Sheriff Rob Giordano, who ran the meeting, said that Freitas put him in charge of working with the task force when it was founded nearly two years ago.

“This has been my project since day one,” Giordano said. “I’ve been to the task force meetings. That’s why you’re getting me. The sheriff has spoken to this issue in public before the Board (of Supervisors).”

“That’s just going before bureaucrats,” said Tom Bonfigli of Sebastopol, standing up to speak.

The meeting was part of a series of public events with the agencies affected by the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force’s findings about how to improve police-community relations after Lopez was shot and killed by a deputy, who told investigators he thought the BB gun the boy was carrying was an assault rifle.

The supervisors formed the task force to develop a plan to address a deep distrust of law enforcement in the local Latino community that surfaced after Lopez’s death in a vacant Santa Rosa lot.

After about 15 months of listening to community feedback and researching ideas, the group developed a sweeping list of recommendations. Most involved changes to law enforcement policies and practices, such as improved use-of-force policies, the need for immediate and extensive community outreach after critical incidents like the Lopez shooting and boosting diversity on the force, which has been a challenge for the department.

Sheriff’s staff estimated that it would need an additional $1 million each year for its budget to make some of the changes suggested, plus a one-time expenditure of about $472,500, according to a report produced for Monday’s forum.

Those costs include adding positions for the internal affairs, media and training units and the cost of buying and running an interactive use-of-force simulator, a new device that allows officers to practice making critical real-time decisions.

Many members of the now-disbanded community task force attended Monday’s meeting, as well as others who were regular observers.

Caroline Bañuelos, who chaired the task force, and several others at Monday’s meeting complained that they only received the agency’s 31-page response to the recommendations about 24 hours before the session, which did not give people who work enough time to review the document.

County staff said members of the public can view the responses online and provide feedback before Christmas. Sheriff’s officials are tentatively scheduled to discuss their findings before supervisors Jan. 12.

Bañuelos and others said some of the Sheriff’s Office responses appear dismissive and do not reflect the recommendations provided by the task force.

She pointed out that in response to the group’s suggestion that the agency incorporate new training methods to avoid unconscious bias by deputies, the Sheriff’s Office stated that training is already part of the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training requirements.

“The response seemed weak to me, to say, ‘We do this already,’ ” Bañuelos said. “We were aware of that, but what we’re saying is that’s not enough.”

“But you didn’t say what would be,” Giordano responded. “We send our people up and down the state.”

Robert Edmonds, who served as vice chairman of the task force, said that the Sheriff’s Office should have acknowledged that community-policing philosophies should be “infused within your organization ... and the hearts and minds of people who do the work, but what I see here is resistance.”

Instead, sheriff’s officials described the need for additional funding to support a special community-policing unit, according to Edmonds.

“Community policing shouldn’t be dependent on those positions and when the money goes away those positions go away,” he said.

Monday’s meeting did not address the most ambitious recommendation by the task force — to create a civilian watchdog agency to review internal affairs investigations, analyze trends, provide a neutral place for people to lodge complaints against sheriff’s personnel and conduct community outreach.

The board already has established a preliminary budget for the program and for months has been trying to recruit a director to get the program started, and since that already was underway Giordano told Monday’s audience that the meeting should focus on other recommendations.

Bañuelos said Monday’s forum was the first time the task force had an opportunity to hear sheriff’s officials offer feedback on their recommendations.

She and her fellow task force members spent 15 months listening to members of the public express often-angry feedback about law enforcement practices and the county’s response to Lopez’s death. Bañuelos said that Freitas’ absence through most of the process was keenly felt by many task force members.

“It is important for the community to see the person who is ultimately responsible for actions made by his team and to face it, the good and the bad,” Bañuelos said. “Giordano took it today, and the task force took it for 15 months. The person who has the power to make change needs to show up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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