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Close to Home: Why the Andy Lopez case won’t go away

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

The Oct. 22, 2013 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy remains among the most painful events in Sonoma County history. Neither the passage of time nor the eventual financial settlement with the Lopez family has tempered the rancor felt by many that the district attorney exonerated Deputy Erick Gelhaus of criminal wrongdoing.

The core of the case is well known to Sonoma County residents. Andy was in the process of returning a toy gun — a replica assault weapon — to a friend when Gelhaus, an Iraq War combat veteran and firearms instructor for the Sheriff’s Office, spotted him. Mistaking the toy for a real gun, Gelhaus and his partner pulled over to apprehend Andy. Within three seconds of ordering the boy to “drop the gun” — and as Andy turned around in response — Gelhaus fired eight times, continuing to shoot as the boy fell to the ground.

Donna Brasset-Shearer
Donna Brasset-Shearer

Given the vast number of police shooting cases across the country and the fact that officers are rarely held accountable for killing unarmed people, the public outcry at Gelhaus’ exculpation was inevitable.

Eight years later, the story has resurfaced in filmmaker Ron Rogers’ documentary “3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez,” which is scheduled to air again this week on local PBS stations. Rogers’ documentary adds details that have been generally unknown to the public until now.

In a particularly telling disclosure, during the period when he was being questioned by a Santa Rosa police detective, Gelhaus was assured that he was being interviewed as “strictly a victim at this point.”

The official report listed Andy Lopez as the “offender.”

At face value, this Orwellian legal wizardry would appear to be a cynical twist of conventional morality if it only applied to the Andy Lopez case in Sonoma County. But turning the victim into an offender in officer-involved shootings is a tactic deployed by attorneys representing police unions across the country.

It is these kinds of legal machinations that ignited the head-knocking frustrations of minority communities across the country who feel they are up against a kind of protection racket in their dealings with law enforcement.

An additional sore point for many is that police unions have the power — and the funding — to sabotage efforts at reform. Many are actively involved in ensuring that their favored candidates win local elections, and efforts to deliberately weaken — or eliminate — citizen oversight committees at the local level are staple responses to politicians seeking to rein in police abuses of power.

Just as important for a reform-minded public is the difficulty in counteracting a police union subculture that promotes an authoritarian world view. As Adam Serwer has written in the Atlantic about individual police union cultures, officers are conditioned to view themselves as “soldiers at war with the public they are meant to serve, and above the laws they are meant to enforce” — a mindset that is behind the vast majority of grievances against law enforcement throughout the country.

Everyone knows that police work is often thankless and dangerous and that there are many who perform small unsung heroic feats on a daily basis. But the Andy Lopez case won’t fade away in the public imagination until the day comes when individual officers who abuse their power are routinely held accountable for their behavior.

Donna Brasset-Shearer, a cultural anthropologist, lives in Petaluma.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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