Every year since 2001, the Sonoma County grand jury has reviewed what police call “critical incidents” — officer-involved shootings and the deaths of suspects or criminal defendants in custody.
Until this year.
The 2013-14 grand jury, whose term ended June 30, declined to examine such cases.
That includes the fatal October shooting of teenager Andy Lopez by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, among other deaths involving law enforcement in the past year. Citing a lack of expertise, financial support and public misconceptions about their role, Sonoma County grand jurors decided to diverge from the longstanding custom.
At a press conference Monday announcing her decision that criminal charges were unwarranted against Gelhaus in Lopez’s shooting, District Attorney Jill Ravitch noted that her report will next head to the grand jury for review.
That left the impression that the panel would provide another layer of scrutiny over the incident itself and Ravitch’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against Gelhaus, who fatally shot Lopez, 13, after the deputy apparently mistook the airsoft BB gun he was carrying for an assault rifle.
But even grand jury members said that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of their role.
“It’s really one of procedural or administrative oversight,” said Martin Jones, the upcoming term’s Sonoma County grand jury foreman. “It’s not one where we participate in digging it (the D.A.’s report) apart.”
Jones said the newly formed panel could decide to review Ravitch’s report — or not. He stressed that the group isn’t an enforcement body with the force of the law behind it. “They’re either not qualified or have the feeling that it’s not something they want to get into,” he said of officer-involved death investigations.
The 2013-14 grand jury, in its report published June 25, said, “With scant resources, confidential investigations and deliberations, lack of time and its practice of responding to citizen complaints, this grand jury has chosen not to follow the practice of prior grand juries in reviewing critical incidents.”
Still, that’s the county protocol, as agreed to by the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs’ Association and member police agencies.
This year’s annual grand jury report, published last month, issued an individual report on “critical incidents” explaining the panel’s rationale for bowing out of the traditional review.
Essentially, the panel concluded that its members are not prepared to offer a thorough critique of complicated incidents such as officer-involved shooting deaths and that the public shouldn’t be led to believe they are.
“A grand jury review of the D.A.’s summary report may lead the public to believe this body performs in-depth investigations of all officer-involved fatalities,” it states. “By issuing this report, the 2013-2014 grand jury wishes to correct this possible misconception.”
In Sonoma County, civil grand juries don’t issue indictments, which is the role of a criminal grand jury typically impaneled for a singular purpose. That move — initiated by the district attorney — has been used only a couple of times in the past 15 years here.
Civil grand juries can issue “accusations,” which are quasi-criminal statements issued to remove a public official from office when there are allegations of corruption or willful misconduct.
Jeff Berk, the deputy Sonoma County counsel who acts as the panel’s legal adviser, said he doesn’t think Sonoma County’s civil grand jury ever has taken that step.