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Task force urges separating coroner duties from Sheriff’s Office

Sonoma County needs to change how it investigates police shootings and other law enforcement-related deaths by separating coroner duties from the Sheriff's Office and admitting that the civil grand jury is not capable of providing a robust, independent review of such incidents, according to a county-appointed task force formed after 13-year-old Andy Lopez was killed by a deputy.

But amid a conversation about how to do so Monday before the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, several members of the public who have attended nearly every meeting during the panel's yearlong existence expressed concern that the group's work would not be bold enough and, at any rate, could be ignored by the Board of Supervisors.

Part of the frustration appeared to emerge from listening to the panel address sometimes dizzying layers of bureaucracy involved in questions such as how to separate coroner duties from the Sheriff's Office and how to give legal authority to a civilian review board. Some people said it sounded like the panel could spend too much energy understanding what's not possible instead of proposing what could be changed.

But speakers also took the fact that the Board of Supervisors three months ago declined to read aloud the first interim recommendation to emerge from the panel — that Deputy Erick Gelhaus be removed from patrol duties — to mean that the ideas of the 21-member task force's would go unheeded by the board.

'Let's make it an agenda item where we talk about the effectiveness of the task force,' Michael Rothenberg, a member of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez, said at Monday's meeting. 'How do you interpret that your suggestions were ignored?'

Task Force Chairwoman Caroline Bañuelos told the group that the interim recommendation regarding Gelhaus is not forgotten and will be part of the panel's final recommendations to go before the Board of Supervisors later in the year.

'It has not gone away. It is something that the (task force) body voted for as a majority,' Bañuelos said.

The frustration emerged Monday as the Law Enforcement Accountability subcommittee began presenting its draft recommendations that touched on the lack of any independent review of law enforcement with any legal clout.

Lopez was shot by Gelhaus while the boy was walking down Moorland Avenue. Lopez was carrying an airsoft BB gun that looked like an AK-47, and the deputy said he mistook it for a real assault rifle.

In response to public outcry following Lopez's death, Sheriff Steve Freitas, District Attorney Jill Ravitch and other county leaders have pointed to the grand jury review of incidents such as police shootings as a layer of scrutiny that should ease public concern.

But amid that discussion, the 2013-14 Grand Jury declined to review any officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths during its term and said it was not qualified to do so.

It was a stance the grand jury has not taken since it began reviewing such law enforcement deaths in 2001.

But that did not include the Oct. 22, 2013, death of Lopez because the Sonoma County District Attorney had not yet finished its investigation. The 2014-15 Grand Jury received the District Attorney's report on the Lopez shooting. They could go against the prior jury and look into that shooting. Because of confidentiality rules, the current foreman would not confirm whether the panel will review it.

The subcommittee bolstered the 2013-14 grand jury's statements that it was unqualified and ill-equipped to review officer-involved deaths.

Lynn King said her subcommittee believes the civil grand jury does not provide a suitable layer of scrutiny over law enforcement incidents because it has few resources to investigate, lacks diversity and its findings have no legal authority.

'They have minimal resources, no investigatory training, no support staff, they're volunteers,' King said.

The 2013-14 panel said its members are not prepared to offer a thorough critique of complicated incidents and that the public should not be led to believe they are. The civil grand jury is not an enforcement body with the force of the law behind it. The jury is rarely diverse and has very few resources to support its inquiries.

Lopez's death also sparked public questions about having the coroner's detectives investigate the cause and manner of death for cases that involve sheriff's deputies.

The board asked the task force to look into that issue. The subcommittee reported at Monday's meeting that there is an inherent conflict when coroner's detectives investigate deaths involving their colleagues. The Coroner's Office is in charge of investigating the cause and manner of death when an individual dies while in law enforcement custody or by actions taken by law enforcement employees. Sonoma County elects a sheriff-coroner that provides both services.

'If a deputy sheriff or a correctional officer is involved in an incident in which someone dies, their employer is the person that signs the death certificate, that's the conflict,' said Eric Koenigshofer, subcommittee member.

King said they found no evidence of a problem with investigations in the past and that by many accounts coroner's staff work was exemplary, 'but by its very nature, it is a conflict.'

The group stopped short of recommending an alternative model for the Coroner's Office, and instead recommended that the supervisors explore options and put the decision before voters in 2016. Alternative models include a separately elected coroner or a medical examiner's office housed under a different county agency, such as health services.

The group will continue their presentation next Monday, when they are expected to present their recommendation for establishing a model for independent citizen oversight of law enforcement.

Members of the public can review and comment on the draft recommendations online at http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Community-and-Local-Law-Enforcement-Task-Force. The last day for the public to comment online is March 31, 2015.

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

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Editor's Note: The 2014-15 Sonoma County grand jury has received District Attorney Jill Ravitch's report on the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy. Because of confidentiality rules, however, it will not confirm whether the panel will review it. This article originally incorrectly said the 2013-14 panel had declined to review the Lopez case. The article above has been revised to reflect this correction.

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