Lopez shooting, gun violence spur first debate for Sonoma County sheriff’s candidates
Three candidates in the first contested Sonoma County sheriff’s election in 25 years sparred Friday over who would be best for the job, with two touting the importance of their outsider status to a department beset by controversy in recent years and the third - a current administrative captain - calling the others unqualified.
By far the loudest applause in the event sponsored by the Latino leadership group Los Cien came when retired Los Angeles police Capt. John Mutz blasted the department’s response to the fatal shooting five years ago of a 13-year-old boy by a patrol deputy.
Mutz said then-Sheriff Steve Freitas should have approached Andy Lopez’s mother after he was shot dead on a Santa Rosa sidewalk and grieved with her.
Instead, Mutz said, Freitas refused to “own the mistake,” missing a chance to learn about community impacts of the use of deadly force and prevent another such tragedy.
“It was a leadership failure,” said Mutz, 68, who retired in 1999 and moved to Sebastopol six years ago. “And that’s being generous.”
Gathered in a room at Santa Rosa’s Flamingo Hotel, Mutz and his opponents in the June 5 race - sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick and retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant and Santa Rosa Councilman Ernesto Olivares - each shared their views on a wide range of topics, from recruiting more women and minorities to the predominantly white, male department to cooperation with federal immigration officials.
Essick, 48, of Cloverdale, the only one of the three still working in law enforcement, agreed with Mutz on the need for the sheriff to be “standing on the front porch” and “taking the heat” when things go bad.
But he said Mutz’s promise to make the department workforce half women in four or five years was not realistic because of recruitment challenges.
And he criticized his opponents as lacking the current experience to manage a department with 650 employees and a $180 million budget. Olivares retired from police work 10 years ago and Mutz has been off the force for nearly 20 years, he said.
“I wouldn’t vote for either of them,” Essick said when asked to rate the two men. “They are not qualified to run the Sheriff’s Office.”
The response by the candidate endorsed by rank-and-file deputies, outgoing Sheriff Rob Giordano and most of the Board of Supervisors drew some boos.
Olivares, 60, of Santa Rosa fired back during a question about the recent Florida school mass killing about how he would deal with the proliferation of assault-style rifles.
“I don’t know if I’m feeling qualified to answer that but I’ll do my best,” said Olivares, a 30-year Santa Rosa police veteran, to stifled laughter.
Olivares, like Mutz, said he was still involved in policing issues, traveling to Washington, D.C., recently to speak to groups about gun violence. He distinguished himself from Essick on the topic, saying his opponent would issue concealed gun permits more freely.
“Just to give them out because someone passed a background test is not OK,” Olivares said.
All of the candidates agreed to maintain Giordano’s policy of limited cooperation with federal immigration officials. Mutz said he would “go to jail” himself to protect otherwise law-abiding undocumented residents and Olivares said, “We don’t have time to be enforcing federal laws.”
Essick said he was instrumental in establishing Giordano’s approach.
“His name is on it. He signed it, as sheriff,” Essick said. “But I wrote that policy.”
And they expressed continued support for the county’s independent law enforcement oversight office, established after the 2013 Lopez shooting.
The eighth-grader at Cook Middle School was shot to death by then-Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who mistook a replica airsoft pellet gun he was carrying for an AK-47 rifle.
The killing, which sparked widespread community protest, was later deemed justifiable by District Attorney Jill Ravitch. A federal civil rights lawsuit against the county by the Lopez family is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mutz, who was in charge of patrol at the LAPD’s Foothill division when Rodney King was beaten by four police officers and now advocates increased civilian oversight of police matters, praised the direction of Sonoma County’s law enforcement oversight office.
But he said it needs strengthening and the next sheriff must advocate for it.
“I’m telling you, we have high stakes on this,” said Mutz, a 25-year police veteran. “I hope we don’t miss.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct for Capt. Mark Essick’s area of responsibility at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. ?On Twitter @ppayne.