Sonoma County releases first records on Sheriff’s Office shootings, internal investigations
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has released its first set of internal records under California’s new police transparency law, including documents from the agency’s investigation into the fatal 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a veteran deputy.
The records provide a new window into how law enforcement agencies conduct inquiries into deadly shootings and misconduct. The files made public by the County Counsel’s Office Wednesday include internal reports on the Lopez shooting and four other cases: a correctional deputy’s sexual encounters with a jail inmate; the 2016 nonfatal shooting of a man holding a bicycle lock in Windsor; a two-day standoff in 2014 in Kenwood that ended with the suspect killing himself; and a case where a deputy was found to have lied to his supervisors.
Sheriff Mark Essick said his office released the records to The Press Democrat — a first-of-its-kind disclosure for the county — to comply with California’s new police transparency law. He believes the records will show how the department holds its employees accountable.
“The most important thing I want people to know is that we do quality work when it comes to investigating complaints and investigating our own,” Essick said.
The investigations made public Wednesday are administrative reviews conducted to determine whether employees followed department policies. They do not focus on questions of criminal law.
In the Lopez shooting, the Sheriff’s Office found that then-Deputy Erick Gelhaus had followed department protocols governing use of deadly force.
The 74-page case file on the shooting provides the most detailed description yet of the county’s investigation, launched almost immediately after Gelhaus, on Oct. 22, 2013, fired eight shots at the Santa Rosa boy, striking him seven times. Lopez, a middle school student, had been carrying an airsoft gun made to resemble a real assault rifle. He died on a Moorland Avenue sidewalk less than a mile from his home.
More than three dozen deputies responded to the scene after Gelhaus’ partner that day, Deputy Michael Schemmel, announced “shots fired” on the emergency radio. Investigators spoke with about 100 people in the aftermath, mostly neighbors and people connected to Lopez, including at least six people who said they saw Lopez walking down Moorland Avenue in the moments before he was killed. Many more reported hearing gunfire.
From the outset, Gelhaus, an Iraq War veteran and firearms instructor, told investigators he believed the boy’s airsoft gun was a real AK-47 rifle when he opened fire, fearing for his life, the documents show.
The orange tip indicating the gun was a replica had been removed.
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office would later determine the shooting was justified.
In his first public statement about the shooting, Gelhaus, who is now a patrol sergeant, said Wednesday in an interview that he believes the internal records should be made public and that law enforcement in general “should have done a better job communicating the standards behind these things.”
“If folks saw how thorough these investigations are, combined with the legal standards, if all that were communicated (to the public) we might have different perspectives” on officer-involved shootings and other serious incidents, Gelhaus said.
California lawmakers last year approved the new transparency law, Senate Bill 1421, as a response to a string of controversial police shootings and amid frustration over stringent police personnel safeguards that until this year barred the public from learning about how agencies investigate officer misconduct and deadly incidents involving employees.