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Sonoma County supervisors pledge action on law enforcement oversight

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday said they intend to swiftly establish a new independent office charged with providing civilian oversight of law enforcement, the most significant step to emerge from a process the county set in motion more than a year ago, when a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy on the southwestern outskirts of Santa Rosa.

The new office, led by an appointed auditor, remains a proposal at this point, with no budget or staff, but supervisors offered their strongest signal yet that they want to make the new division a reality, and soon.

“We need to turn this around fast,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “It’s going to cost some money; it’s got to go into this budget.”

The auditor’s office was the central and most ambitious recommendation in a package of proposals made by a county-appointed panel studying community relations with law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of Andy Lopez’s October 2013 shooting death.

The 21 recommendations, put forward by the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, cover a sweeping set of ideas - from boosting mural projects to improving student mental health services.

But of all the recommendations, the independent body overseeing law enforcement generated the most study and public debate. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors dedicated the bulk of its hearing - its first on the entire set of proposals from the task force - to the oversight office.

Board Chairwoman Susan Gorin called Lopez’s death “a tragedy which is still tearing us apart” before supervisors voiced their support for advancing the auditor proposal. They said they would need more time to evaluate the other 20 proposals.

The discussion came amid a heated and raw national debate about race and use of deadly force by law enforcement officers. The uproar has been punctuated by high-profile deaths of at least three young black men in incidents involving officers.

But Sonoma County had already begun examining a deep community rift with law enforcement, especially in the county’s immigrant and minority communities, when a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old robbery suspect who was black. The incident exposed inherent bias and corrupt police practices for that Midwest town, while fueling the ongoing national conversation about police practices.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo noted that “there’s a parallel there between what’s being debated nationally and what we’re able to do here on a local level.”

The proposed independent auditor’s office - one of several existing models for law enforcement oversight - draws on a similar auditor’s office that exists in San Jose. It is staffed by attorneys and reviews ?officer-involved shootings and civilian complaints, producing a detailed annual report.

Supervisors gave county staff a June 16 deadline to hammer out a budget and job descriptions for an Office of Independent Auditor designed to review citizen complaints and shootings involving Sonoma County sheriff’s and probation office personnel, in addition to engaging with the community about police practices.

Lopez was carrying an airsoft BB gun designed to look like an assault rifle on Oct. 22, 2013, when he was shot and killed by Deputy Erick Gelhaus. Gelhaus, who was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and defended by the Sheriff’s Office after an internal policy review, said he mistook the boy’s gun for a real weapon. He had ordered the boy to drop the gun, but instead the teen began turning toward him, raising the barrel.

On Tuesday, the 20 task force members filled several rows in the supervisors’ chambers, alongside a stalwart group of activists that has doggedly followed the panel’s process during its 16-month duration.

Taken as a whole, the 21 recommendations made by the task force promote greater transparency about how law enforcement agencies train their officers, create policy and work with the communities they serve.

The ideas mirror many of the recommendations generated by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing convened this year and an overall national push to renew public trust in law enforcement agencies.

Caroline Bañuelos, the task force chairwoman, urged the supervisors to quickly adopt the auditor plan because it will “break down those barriers between law enforcement and the community. … It will bring about healing and change we’re looking for,” Banuelos said.

“This was the first time since I’ve been here in my 32 years here that the community was asked to make recommendations to make real change,” she said.

However, Bañuelos and Robert Edmonds, the task force vice chairman, penned a letter included with the recommendations that urged the supervisors to make it a priority to push Sacramento lawmakers to address some of the state’s laws, including the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, that inhibit oversight and transparency.

Tuesday’s discussion also touched on the task force’s recommendation that the coroner duties be separated from the Sheriff’s Office, a change that would involve asking Sonoma County voters to approve separating the functions.

The task force’s recommendations were handed to the board in a 700-page report that included an in-depth explanation of the ideas and a trove of documents collected during the group’s research and detailing many experts that testified before the group.

In addition to the auditor office, the ideas include improving diversity in the Sheriff’s Office, expanding mental health services in schools, establishing regular public review of use-of-force practices, and enlisting public input in the policy for the sheriff’s new body camera program.

The board will have to evaluate whether some of the recommendations already fall under the purview of existing programs or outside the board’s authority or goals.

The Sheriff’s Office already has launched new programs aligned with several of the task force’s recommendations, including a new community-policing unit that includes a special focus in the Roseland and Moorland neighborhoods. Lopez and his family lived on Moorland Avenue, an unincorporated, working-class area on Santa Rosa’s southwestern outskirts with a significant Latino population.

The bulk of ideas crafted by a subcommittee of the group focused on youth, such as boosting music in schools and expanding restorative justice alternatives to discipline.

Supervisor David Rabbitt promised attendees of Tuesday’s meeting that the task force’s work will not fall to the wayside.

“Today is not the end, and this report will not be put on the shelf,” said Rabbitt, who was serving as chairman when the board formed the task force.

Members of the public spoke passionately about a sense of frustration that nothing had changed to address Lopez’s death. Several activists including Susan Lamont with the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County argued with Gorin, with Lamont claiming that throughout, she and other activists had been disrespected. They demanded more time to speak, and Gorin gave them more time.

Activist Marni Wroth of Forestville echoed the demand of many present at the meeting that Sheriff Steve Freitas move Gelhaus off street patrol duties to a role within the Sheriff’s Office that does not involve weapons training or interacting with the public.

“Our community is not healed and will not begin to heal until Deputy Gelhaus is removed from patrol assignment,” Wroth said.

Freitas has repeatedly said he will not remove Gelhaus from patrol duties, noting that would be a violation of the deputy’s rights.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Joe Dulworth said that members of the public sometimes react without knowing details of a hostile situation, and said the recommendation to remove Gelhaus from patrol should be “thrown out.”

“There is no legal authority to remove him, no legal or administrative cause to remove him,” Dulworth said. “Our feeling is that it should be dropped completely.”

Freitas and District Attorney Jill Ravitch did not attend Tuesday’s meeting. Gorin said that the county’s top law enforcement leaders were at a conference that had been planned long before the meeting was scheduled.

Read all of the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force recommendations online at http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Community-and-Local-Law-Enforcement-Task-Force.

Staff Writer Angela Hart contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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