On March 24, members of the Community Action Coalition served a notice of intention to recall Sheriff Steve Freitas from office. Just hours later the sheriff announced that he would not seek re-election in 2018.
Nonetheless, the Community Action Coalition will persevere in its effort to remove a sheriff who has failed repeatedly to fulfill his stated mission to provide “professional, firm, fair and compassionate public safety services” to our communities. Under his leadership, this Sheriff’s Office has consistently discriminated against people of color, the homeless and their encampments and the mentally ill. Excessive use of force is pervasive.
The 2013 killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by Deputy Erick Gelhaus fanned deep-seated resentments of local Latino communities, which had already endured years of racial profiling, humiliation and senseless killings by law enforcement. After the sheriff reassigned Gelhaus back to street patrol, one Latina from Santa Rosa said, “The message was clear: you are faceless, nameless, voiceless, and we don’t care about you.”
Sentiments swelled again last year when the sheriff promoted Gelhaus. “He is highly qualified and will represent the Sheriff’s Office well,” Freitas said. “If I didn’t believe that, he wouldn’t be promoted. “
The Sheriff’s Office has been accused of the 2015 beating of 20 jail inmates over a period of five hours, a case that is now in federal court. Also awaiting trial is the Lopez family’s wrongful death suit against Gelhaus and the sheriff. Deputy Scott Thorne, since dismissed, is facing felony assault charges. Sonoma County taxpayers have already had to fork out some $2 million in settlements for excessive force and civil rights violations cases against this Sheriff’s Office.
In 2016, the federally authorized group Disability Rights California found serious violations at the county jail. Mentally ill inmates were being medicated illegally against their will, health care was inadequate and excessive isolation and solitary confinement were routine practice. Drinking water was unavailable to one female inmate who was observed scooping water out of a cell toilet to drink.
In February, the sheriff met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington, D.C., which suggests his support for the Trump administration’s call for the deportation this year of two to three million Mexican immigrants by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Although many local jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies are refusing to participate in that policy, the sheriff says that he “absolutely will cooperate” with Immigration and Customs Enforcement concerning individuals in the county jail.
Impacted communities are in crisis mode. Dina Lopez of Catholic Charities says that families feel “terrorized,” and frantic parents are taking legal steps to provide for their children in case they’re deported. Many children are afraid of going to school and coming home to find their parents gone. At recent Latino community meetings, “the fear, the dread, the despair was heavy … several parents were crying,” notes Jerry Threet, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. As things stand now, the sheriff will be in office for nearly two more years, and there’s no telling how many families may be destroyed, how many children harmed. The sheriff’s toxic policies simply do not reflect the values and ethics of the people of Sonoma County. Accordingly, the Community Action Coalition is moving forward with its petition to recall Sheriff Freitas as soon as possible.