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Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas disappeared into the upbeat crowd of government employees and community members gathered over fruit and cookies on a recent weeknight at a county meeting room in Santa Rosa.

The group was celebrating the opening of the county’s first program providing civilian review of law enforcement — a layer of evaluation that Freitas believes is unnecessary, although he has pledged to support it.

In a white dress shirt and black slacks, gun and badge clipped to his belt, Freitas stopped to shake the hand of the attorney hired to audit complaints about his deputies. He politely listened to speakers, passed up a chance to address the group and, once the formal part of the event was done, slipped out the door.

“I love nothing better than to be off the radar,” Freitas said later. “You can get things done and accomplish your goals without being the center of attention.”

But Freitas’ penchant for the sidelines, to be part of the team rather than the face of his department, has compounded the greatest tests of his leadership — ones of public communication and accountability — crystallized in the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, whose 2013 death fueled a community outcry that led to civilian review of the Sheriff’s Office.

Freitas’ leadership style has been criticized inside and outside the Sheriff’s Office following the Lopez shooting and a series of high-profile civil rights lawsuits over the treatment of inmates at the county jail. His low-key approach, critics say, has lowered morale and exacerbated an exodus of experienced deputies, a staffing drop that made it difficult for deputies to do more than respond to 911 calls.

Supporters credit the sheriff, who will decide over the next 10 months whether to seek a third term in 2018, for the way he handled financial challenges, adjusted to low staff numbers, revived the department’s focus on rural crimes and formed a citizen Latino Advisory Committee to help him work with one of Sonoma County’s fastest-growing populations.

“I’m very proud of the budget stuff; I’m very proud we survived that time,” Freitas said.

As sheriff of the county’s largest law enforcement agency, Freitas oversees a $159 million annual budget and roughly 600 employees who run the jail and patrol 1,550 square miles of mostly rural land.

Freitas, 53, is a numbers guy, a thinker, a by-the-book lawman, according to interviews with about 40 current and retired law enforcement personnel, government officials and community members. His strategic acumen helped Freitas steer the department through years of budget cuts, followed by a complex challenge when the state shifted thousands of prisoners to county jails.

But supporters and critics alike say Freitas could have eased the unrest in the community by maintaining a stronger public presence in the aftermath of the Lopez shooting, which led to months of protests and two years of public meetings about police-community relations. From the start, Freitas’ response was restrained, often relayed via written statements and spokespeople.

“I wish he had been more visible, more accessible in the community in the aftermath of the Lopez tragedy … to hear their concern and provide some reassurances he is out there listening,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said.

In his own department, some deputies say Freitas seemed to be “hiding” and that a more prominent presence could have eased morale problems that helped fuel an unprecedented exodus of veteran deputies, a drop in productivity and difficulty recruiting new hires.

Close to 20 deputies have left for other law enforcement agencies. Some were seeking better pay, but many deputies interviewed said low morale played a role.

Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff Association, which represents about 220 deputies, said his membership wanted a highly visible sheriff engaging with the public — in uniform — defending the deputy who shot Lopez and the professionalism of the department.

“He chose not to do that, and that has haunted him,” Vail said. “That mindset where we let things play out only in the courts and stay quiet, those days are over.”

Occidental attorney and former county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, who served on a community task force charged with examining the Lopez shooting, disagreed. A “knee-jerk defense is exactly what the county didn’t need,” he said.

“We needed quiet leadership, reflection and transparency,” Koenigshofer said.

Former Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde said Freitas deserves credit for leading the department through the difficult times. But he also said the sheriff could have been a more public presence after Lopez was shot.

“There were times he could have been out in front of it more,” said Ihde, known for his civic presence during his two-term tenure ending in 1997. “If it were me I think I would have gone (to the meetings), to hear the criticism and reach out to them.”

Since Lopez’s death, the county has dedicated millions of dollars to programs addressing concerns about deadly force and law enforcement’s relationship with minority communities. It fast-tracked a plan to outfit deputies with body cameras and started an $827,000 annual civilian law enforcement review department, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

Freitas acknowledged his tenure has been challenging. He said the department turned a corner this year, when a new labor contract increased wages and benefits, slowed the departures and attracted more job applicants, “I can see people are more upbeat,” he said.

Vail said many deputies agree, noting morale has improved following the approval of the new contract.

In recent months, the department has undertaken a concerted effort to improve its image in the community and promote crime-fighting successes and good works. Freitas hired a media consultant and dedicated staff to the mission, which involves an energetic presence on social media.

“You learn from these and you get better when you go through these seminal events,” Freitas said. “Tough times, tribulation makes you strong in the long run.”

Man of faith

Freitas was born in San Jose, the youngest of three. His parents, a plumber and a homemaker, urged him to choose a career over a degree when he was hired by the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office as a senior at San Jose State University. He followed the footsteps of his older brother, who was a deputy.

Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney Paul Lozada was hired a year after Freitas, and they worked together at the jail as 20-somethings new to the job. Lozada said even in the early days, Freitas was known as “serious” and “a man you could rely on. He wasn’t one of those guys to move fast and loose with the law.”

Lozada and Freitas both ended up at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“He can come across as arrogant and sometimes a bit mechanical and less human, but the guy I know inside all of that does care about people,” said Lozada, who left around 1997 to get a law degree. “He’s a devout Christian. He does believe in helping his fellow man.”

Freitas was a sergeant running the violent crimes team in 2004 when a couple in their 20s were shot as they slept on a beach north of Jenner. The shocking killing of the two youth camp counselors was a national story. The case remains unsolved.

It was a formative time for Freitas, who was moved by the fervent Christian faith of the victims’ families and found a religious rebirth during the investigation into their deaths.

“It was a tough case for all of us, but it changed him and the way he looked at life,” said Bill Cogbill, who was sheriff at the time.

Now, married with two teen boys, Freitas said he rarely swears, doesn’t drink heavily and is loath to miss his boys’ baseball games or track meets. A math whiz and avid card player, he’s part of a law enforcement poker group going on 25 years.

Just 18 credits shy of a bachelor’s degree, he said he plans to finish school once he’s retired “so I can tell my kids I finished what I started.”

Fighting budget cuts

Freitas took office in 2011, winning an uncontested election at a time when the county’s budget was catching up with a historic recession. The department was facing a potential loss of nearly 16 percent of its workforce.

Cogbill said he backed Freitas to succeed him after evaluating a handful of other potential candidates because he was “brainy” with “common sense.”

“He was not after his own personal agenda; he was really trying to do the right thing for the community and the department and that was very important to me,” Cogbill said.

That January, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a plan to ease the state prison overcrowding crisis by handing the responsibility for more than 35,000 prisoners to county jails and probation agencies. Sonoma County’s jail population jumped 20 percent.

Freitas met the financial and political challenges head-on. He put pressure on county supervisors, who control his budget, to spare his department from the biggest cuts. He and newly elected District Attorney Jill Ravitch publicly refused to go along with County Administrator Veronica Ferguson’s call for all departments to slash budgets by 25 percent.

Freitas threatened to cut the popular helicopter program — the Henry 1 crew credited with saving the lost, injured and capsized up and down the rugged Northern California coastline — to meet the ultimatum.

The strategic maneuver resulted in public demands to save the program. It survived the threat, and in the end the Sheriff’s Office budget was cut only 3.6 percent.

Today, the Sheriff’s Office is gearing up to start a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to replace the aging aircraft, and Freitas said he’s setting aside asset forfeiture funds to jump-start the effort. He also is funneling drug funds to programs including a woman’s shelter and a new day labor center in Fulton.

He said his legacy will include a revived rural crimes task force, establishing a citizen Latino Advisory Committee and winning a $40 million grant to build a new wing of the jail for inmates with mental illness, a growing portion of the population. Construction is set to start in three years.

Absences draw ire

Andy Lopez was 13, high after smoking marijuana, and newly kicked out of Cook Middle School on Oct. 22, 2013, when he was walking down South Moorland Avenue. He was heading toward a friend’s house and carrying the kind of airsoft gun readily bought in stores that looks strikingly like an AK-47 assault rifle. An orange tip designed to distinguish it from its lethal counterpart was missing.

A pair of deputies driving by spotted the boy and one of them ordered him to drop the gun. Eight shots later, Lopez was dead on the ground in an abandoned lot that was supposed to have been a park in a working-class, mainly immigrant neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s outskirts.

The name Andy Lopez became synonymous with Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott — men and teenagers, black and Latino, who died during encounters with police officers across the United States over the last three years.

These high-profile deaths put deadly force on the nation’s agenda. President Barack Obama convened a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to help address “rifts in the relationships between local police and the communities they protect and serve.”

The Lopez shooting evoked a historical tension in Sonoma County between communities of color and law enforcement. His death helped drive the county to push forward creation of a civilian review program, an idea brought up time and time again in Sonoma County after police shootings but never done.

Santa Rosa resident and community leader Caroline Bañuelos, who helps run the Roseland Cinco de Mayo festival, was chairwoman of the county-appointed citizen task force that for two years delved into questions about police practices and designed the plan for a citizen oversight program.

Bañuelos said police shootings are public issues. She said communities need to understand what happened — and law enforcement leaders should be responsive to public concerns. While Freitas sent high-ranking staff members to the task force meetings, Bañuelos said the sheriff should have made an appearance. He also didn’t attend a forum at the Sheriff’s Office to discuss the group’s ideas, an absence that drew strong rebuke from some in the audience.

“I got involved with the task force to find a way to bridge the community and law enforcement — we have to break down that wall,” Bañuelos said. “Steve Freitas, who doesn’t know me, didn’t give me the chance to say that to him.”

The deputy who shot Lopez, Erick Gelhaus, was eventually exonerated in administrative and criminal reviews and he remains at work. Nonetheless, Freitas said Lopez’s death was a “huge event, a tragic event” for the community and his department, one that required a restrained response at a time when community passions were flaring.

“We wanted to be very careful. It was pretty raw. It’s easy to make a misstep,” Freitas said in a recent interview, one of three separate sit-down sessions totaling nearly four hours.

While he can’t point to a specific thing he’d do differently in hindsight, Freitas said he has listened to the criticism. It has influenced his efforts to put statements and videos of his interviews on social media, and send more internal memos to be more receptive.

But not all the criticism is fair, he said. He pointed to his busy public event schedule and said he attended a variety of events in the months after the Lopez shooting, including a “healing circle” at the Sebastopol Grange and a Human Rights Commission hearing where he faced pointed criticisms from the public.

“There was a group of people who wanted me to be more aggressive or assertive in my defense,” Freitas said. “There was a whole group of people who think I was too aggressive and too assertive. I think I found the middle ground.”

However busy Freitas has been in the community it hasn’t always translated to the public as a sense of leadership.

“He’s kind of not been that visible in the midst of a lot of stuff going on. In terms of being a real leader, I haven’t got that,” said Chris Andrian, a well-respected defense attorney in the county who for decades had kept abreast of law enforcement issues. “I did get that sense from (previous sheriffs) Cogbill and Ihde. There was no question who was running the show. They were a force.”

Pointed confrontation

On a night last June, the deputies held an unusual meeting at their union hall behind a rollup door in an industrial complex in northwest Santa Rosa. It’s usually hard to get two dozen deputies to show up, but on this night about 80 men and women filled the chairs and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the two-story room.

They cast a special vote to allow Freitas in the door, and a union representative asked about 25 questions submitted anonymously by deputies. The questions were tough, many involving the Lopez case, but one stood out: How would he react to a no-confidence vote?

Several people in attendance said Freitas appeared to be taken aback before saying he hoped that vote would never happen. It didn’t.

“I don’t think he realized the impressions of the deputies were that negative until that moment,” said a veteran deputy present at the meeting. He and nearly 20 others interviewed about the department didn’t want their names used because of concern for their jobs and the sensitivity of the issues.

Freitas, when asked in an interview about the union meeting, said he took the feelings behind the questions seriously, but believed they represented the views of just a few deputies.

Vail and others said it was more widespread.

Sonoma County’s deputies are a proud and loyal lot. The department has been known for encouraging independence, specialization and skill. Deputies don’t only drive patrol cars. They might jump into the ocean from a helicopter, defuse explosives and at times be the only deputy in charge of responding to 911 calls over huge areas of the county.

So the critical focus on the Sheriff’s Office after the Lopez shooting — and on deadly force on the national level — felt like laser spotlights on the profession that left out the good work being done every day, many deputies have said.

“We have to show support for our deputies and help healing in the community,” Vail said. “That comes from the top.”

More transparency

Many in the community heralded the start of Sonoma County’s civilian law enforcement oversight program, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, as a way to improve transparency and accountability, a direction the entire nation is taking. One of his main missions is to make sure internal investigations into citizen complaints are fair, said its director, Jerry Threet, who started the job in mid-April.

Bañuelos said citizens want a say in how they are being policed, perhaps more than ever before, and this program will help educate the public and advise law enforcement.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he is proud of the new office and defended its cost — with nearly a $827,000 annual budget — as a “sound investment” when considering the millions of dollars the county has spent defending itself in use-of-force lawsuits. He said it’s also a recognition of the complex relationship between disenfranchised communities across the country and law enforcement.

“The creation of the office wasn’t intended to say, ‘Things are broken, you’re doing things wrong,’ ” Carrillo said. “It’s intended to create more communication, more transparency with law enforcement, and it’s hard to put a price on that.”

Supervisor Gorin said she hoped the program will identify improvements to police practices and responsiveness to the public.

“Time will tell as to how enthusiastically the Sheriff’s Office embraces any recommendations coming forward,” Gorin said.

For his part, Freitas has said he was already considering hiring a consultant to audit the way the Sheriff’s Office internal investigations team reviews citizen complaints.

Freitas said he sees value in getting outside opinions. He’s already had similar audits done to critique hiring practices, in particular identifying ways to recruit more diverse candidates, as well as evaluate jail conditions and procedures, which he said received high marks.

Hiring a consultant to provide an independent review of deputy shootings, jail deaths and citizen complaint investigations — as the Santa Rosa Police Department has done — would be a more cost-effective way of providing the same type of analysis, he said. But, he said, “the Board of Supervisors is free to spend money. They have the purse strings.

“We’re going to see how this works out,” Freitas said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.