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A small garden has taken root in the hard-packed soil of the ragged vacant lot on the southern outskirts of Santa Rosa where 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy one year ago.

The flowers stand at the opening of a tent sheltering a defiant memorial for Lopez, with candles, crosses and photographs of the teen’s smiling face tacked to the walls. Under U.S. and Mexican flags, two handwritten signs proclaim “Andy’s Rule: Never shoot to kill unless the need to do so is apparent and obvious.”

Deputy Erick Gelhaus spotted Lopez carrying what the deputy thought was a high-powered assault rifle, but turned out to be an airsoft BB gun made to look like one. The deputy called out at least once. The boy didn’t drop the gun. Eight shots later, Lopez died in a moment that forever changed the lives of two families and fueled long-held suspicions of police even beyond the poor and largely Latino neighborhood where he died.

The Oct. 22, 2013, shooting was a flashpoint that drove people into the streets with repeated cries against discrimination and the heavy hand of police.

The refrains of injustice, which were echoed nationally in places like Ferguson, Mo., where another teen was shot and killed by police, put Santa Rosa on the map of a national conversation about race and police practices.

Lopez’s death has spurred legislation in Sacramento and revived a push to create a process for civilian review of law enforcement in Sonoma County.

“It is part of our lives right now,” said Caroline Bañuelos, chairwoman of the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force formed in the wake of the shooting. “Whenever I see a police officer, it is the first thing that comes to mind.”

Cleared of wrongdoing

Gelhaus was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the district attorney and a Sheriff’s Office internal investigation found he did not violate department policy.

For some, those steps — which closed the nine-month investigation into the shooting and allowed Gelhaus to return to patrol — have meant it is time to move on from what was a tragic mistake.

Yet for others, including a group of residents and activists who have devoted hours at protests and government meetings and stood alongside an unprecedented number of middle- and high schoolers when they left class to take to the streets, this is just the beginning. It is the start of a long fight to address a cataclysmic rift between the Latino and minority communities and law enforcement. The FBI continues its investigation of whether Lopez’s civil rights were violated.

“As we look at a year of time that’s passed by, we do have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. “It will always be a part of our community. A child died, and a deputy’s life is forever altered. And a community is still grieving.”

Sheriff Steve Freitas declined requests to discuss the impact of the shooting last week. Quietly, those who work in law enforcement have discussed wanting to speak out in support of Gelhaus and the split-second decision he made. Privately, they say he was horrified by the outcome. Rank-and-file members of the Sheriff’s Office and local police departments who were asked to talk publicly about their reactions declined to do so, saying that should come from the top of their departments.

Community discussions

The impact of Lopez’s death went far beyond the people, agencies and even issues directly involved, pulling residents from across the county into discussions about how law enforcement can build better relationships with those they serve.

“The community is taking a look at itself, at what we are willing to accept and what we are not willing to accept,” said Hank Schreeder, acting chief of the Santa Rosa Police Department.

“I think we have all been changed by what happened on that tragic day,” Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. “Certainly it has impacted the work we do at the District Attorney’s Office with regard to how the public views us.”

Yet those at the heart of a shooting so tragic and contentious largely have avoided discussing the events or reflecting on its aftermath in a public way.

Lopez’s parents, Rodrigo and Sujey Lopez, have kept private and, about six months ago according to friends and neighbors, quietly moved to Southern California. They are pursuing a federal civil rights lawsuit that their attorney predicts will yield millions of dollars in damages.

Both Gelhaus and the deputy on patrol with him that day, Michael Schemmel, have repeatedly declined requests for interviews through their attorney, Terry Leoni. She did not respond to a new request to speak to her clients last week.

Freitas did not return calls requesting an interview over two weeks. A spokeswoman said he was out of town and unavailable to speak. She emailed a statement in which Freitas called the death of Lopez a “pivotal event affecting law enforcement and the community” and noted that it “will always be part of the narrative of this county.”

“Those in law enforcement who put their lives on the line to protect and serve us are also part of the community,” he said.

But that connection is not felt by some residents and people who have continued to gather at an altar for Lopez at the vacant lot where he died.

Appearance of normalcy

On the southern end of Moorland Avenue where the Lopez family once lived, a sense of quiet normalcy has once again set in, at least on the surface. Neighbors and friends said the Lopez family left their rented mobile home several months ago, and the sympathy notes and banners that were once strung across the wide front metal gate are long gone.

Angelica Gonzalez, 28, who lives with her family in one of two houses located on the same property, said the shooting has deeply painted her view of law enforcement. Gonzalez said she has a 6-month-old son, and like other mothers she worries about his future in a world where videos and photos of police abuse can be found all over the Internet.

Since the Lopez shooting, she notices more reported instances of police misconduct and unjustified shootings. That awareness has taken its toll, she said.

“We don’t know if we should be scared or simply more careful, and we wonder if they’re really there to protect us,” Gonzalez said, speaking in Spanish.

The county’s lengthy investigation into the shooting left many people in the area disillusioned. “Many people say there is no justice,” she said. “What can one expect if there was no justice?”

The Lopez family left Santa Rosa because they felt threatened, according to a close friend of Lopez’s father, who asked that his name not be used for fear of being harassed by local law enforcement officers. He said the Lopez family would sometimes come home after going out and find notes posted at their home warning them to “let up” on their legal campaign against the county.

He said Lopez’s father, Rodrigo, will not even tell him where he now lives when they speak by cellphone.

The Lopez family’s attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, said last week by email that the “family is completely devastated” and are in “deep depression” and are not able to speak to a reporter. From the beginning, the Lopez family has been unwilling to grant an in-depth interview about the death of their son.

On the day of the shooting, Lopez was walking along the sidewalk carrying an airsoft BB gun designed to look like an AK-47 semiautomatic weapon. An orange plastic tip on the barrel indicating the weapon was a replica was missing.

The weapon was, from a distance, indistinguishable from a lethal firearm, investigators concluded — an element of the encounter that has led to the most significant change since Lopez was killed.

A new law will take effect in 2016 imposing the strictest regulations on BB guns and toy or replica weapons in the country. The law, co-authored by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, says that those types of guns must be brightly colored or have prominent fluorescent strips to make them easy to distinguish from an actual assault rifle.
In Sonoma County, the shooting may have finally paved the way for a civilian review board to look at law enforcement incidents and practices. A panel of the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force is preparing a recommendation for the Board of Supervisors next year outlining what form a review board might take.

The shooting also spurred a deeper look by county government into its cultural diversity.

In a December 2013 presentation to the Board of Supervisors, county staff reported that 11.7 percent of Sheriff’s Office employees are Latino, compared to 15 percent within all county government departments. Only 9.5 percent of deputies are Latino, compared to 24.4 percent of county residents between the ages of 18 and 64 and 25.9 percent of all residents.

Latino leaders from local high schools are reviving the Latino Student Congress, with the help of Sonoma State University professor Francisco Vázquez and leaders at the North Bay Organizing Project. The group is reconvening after a nearly 20-year hiatus because of an overwhelming response by teens to Lopez’s death.

Ravitch, the district attorney, said she responded to a strong community call for details about the case by providing an extensive 52-page report to the public. She added an appendix with photographs and further detail.

“I’ve learned there is a strong sense of distrust among some members of our community for law enforcement,” Ravitch said. “I’ve learned the importance of being as transparent as we can be.”

Heard gunshots, sirens

Two doors down from the vacant lot on Moorland Avenue, Tony Meng, 23, remembered the Oct. 22 afternoon one year ago when he heard the gunshots and then sirens as he took a shower. He went outside and officers asked him to describe what he heard and to go back indoors.

Meng, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended Elsie Allen High School, said the shooting has only exacerbated fear and anxiety some residents feel toward police and sheriff’s deputies.

“I think cops should be re- educated about what side they’re on,” said Meng, who described the current environment in the Moorland area as “us against them.”

Across the street, a woman who has lived on Moorland Avenue for 70 years said she disagrees with that sentiment. The woman, who did not want to give her name because she said she feared retaliation, said she does not like the makeshift park and wishes the property owner would instead build something on the spot.

“He was asking for trouble, but that’s just how I was raised,” she said of Lopez.

Other residents in the area continue to view the shooting as wrong and unwarranted, despite the official conclusion from the District Attorney’s Office.

“What happened there was unjust. But that’s just my opinion. It was just a child,” said a Moorland Avenue resident who asked that her name not be used.

The shooting forged the Justice for Andy Lopez Coalition, a small but devoted group of people who have been outspoken at task force meetings.

Speaking out

Among them is Ana Salgado, a homemaker and mother of three adult children who lives off West Ninth Street. In the past year, Salgado has stepped solidly out of her comfort zone, pulling her English-Spanish dictionary out at night to help her craft what she wants to say before the task force or at other meetings.

Wednesday’s anniversary brings a lot of mixed feelings for Salgado.

“People are still so upset, they talk to me in Spanish, what can we do about this and that? They’re afraid to speak up. I tell them to come to the meetings, but no, they don’t want to go,” Salgado said.

She is among a group collecting signatures for a petition asking the Sheriff’s Office to pull Gelhaus off patrol and reassign him to other duty.

“As a Latino, I feel that we need more support, we need to speak up more,” Salgado said. “We need the strong voices of Latino people who have some kind of power in the community because me, I’m a housewife, my voice is not that strong.”

Schreeder, acting Santa Rosa police chief, said that he received demands from the public for increased transparency. In response, he published information on use-of-force statistics and provided a status for all critical incidents, including fatal police shootings, for the past 10 years.

Department staff members are developing a handbook for students on police practices and how to interact with law enforcement.

Schreeder said a conciliation specialist with the Department of Justice came and spoke with Police Department staff. That, as well as the lessons learned from tense confrontations in 2005 during Cinco de Mayo, shaped how police handled public demonstrations in the wake of Lopez’s death. The protests, and law enforcement response, were largely peaceful, in sharp contrast to the aggressive police tactics used to counter demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo.

Schreeder said Lopez’s death has spurred a deeper conversation about how the department would build a relationship with residents if the city annexes Roseland.

“We have to answer the community’s questions, like what’s going to happen when we call?” he said of the neighborhood, which is predominantly Latino and includes many immigrants.

The shooting has also prompted conversations in communities across the county about the relationship between police and the people they serve. Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver, who said he has sat down with about a half-dozen residents who wanted to talk about the shooting, has tried to explain that officers sometimes must make difficult, quick decisions to protect their lives and the lives of others.

“There are split-second decisions made in an incredibly dynamic and scary setting that are then reviewed or questioned or second-guessed, which is fine,” Weaver said. “But often the officers involved are, in the eye of some parts of the public, reduced to that three seconds.”

Federal review continues

The federal government is continuing its review of the shooting to see if Gelhaus violated the teenager’s civil rights. Brian Weber, an FBI spokesman in San Francisco, would not discuss details of the review, saying it was ongoing. And he would not estimate how long the review would take.

“It’s still under federal review,” he said. “Because of that, we can’t comment further.”

Federal prosecutors will examine the case to see if deputies violated so-called “color of law” statutes by using excessive force. Officers may use whatever force is reasonably necessary to make arrests, maintain order or defend lives. But they are in violation of federal law if the force is willfully unreasonable or excessive.

Lopez’s parents are seeking monetary damages from Gelhaus and the county in a civil lawsuit filed last year in federal court.

The suit alleges the shooting was unjustified and claims Gelhaus acted recklessly when he fired eight shots at the teenager, striking him seven times. It also accuses the Sheriff’s Office of encouraging the use of excessive force by deputies.

U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton lifted a temporary stay on proceedings when Ravitch announced this summer that Gelhaus would not be prosecuted. Now, lawyers from both sides can begin deposing witnesses, including Gelhaus. An estimated two-week trial is set for April 2016.

Both sides are expected to enter mediation in an effort to reach a pretrial settlement. A deadline for summary judgment motions is Dec. 9, said County Counsel Bruce Goldstein.

“The litigation is in an early stage but for plaintiffs’ claims to be successful in federal court they require a unanimous jury verdict,” Goldstein said. “Given the evidence presented in the district attorney’s exhaustive report, and its conclusion that Deputy Gelhaus reasonably and actually feared that his life was in danger at the time of the shooting, it appears it would be very difficult to achieve such a verdict.”

Lopez family lawyer Casillas did not return a call or email seeking comment on the lawsuit. Casillas has said he expected damages could exceed the $24 million he won last year for the family of a Los Angeles boy who was shot and paralyzed by police when he was playing with an airsoft gun.

The grief that spilled out on city streets in the weeks after the shooting last year is quieter now. On a recent day on Moorland Avenue, people pulled into their driveways after work. A woman walked her dog. A Sheriff’s Office patrol car cruised down the street.

“When you look at other shootings going on, most are people of color,” said Bañuelos, chairwoman of the task force. “You can’t ignore that. It just keeps happening. Something is wrong.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin. espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story spelled Sonoma State University professor Francisco Vázquez’s name incorrectly.

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