The entire Tribal Council of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and I were shocked and dismayed to read that Erick Gelhaus, the Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013, has been promoted to sergeant. There are still enough unresolved questions about the shooting to make any promotion of Deputy Gelhaus premature if not outright wrong.
Although neither the state nor federal investigations into the shooting ended in criminal charges against Gelhaus, these investigations do not lead to the conclusion that promotion to a significant supervisory position would be appropriate. In fact, legal proceedings in connection with the shooting are not over and should have been allowed to reach their conclusion before any promotion occurred.
A lawsuit filed by Andy Lopez’s parents, acting as his estate, is pending in federal court. This suit has survived a motion by Sonoma County for summary judgment, which is now on appeal, and may be proceeding to trial. In its ruling on the motion, the District Court found that it had not been established that Andy posed an actual threat and that there were no reports of Andy acting erratically. The court found no evidence that Andy pointed a weapon or object believed to be a weapon at the officers, that he made any sudden movement toward the object officers believed to be a weapon or that he exhibited other threatening, aggressive or erratic behavior.
As stated in the lawsuit, Andy was only 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds at the time of his death. The district attorney’s report stated that one witness testified that he could tell Andy’s “gun” didn’t look heavy enough to be a real Ak-47 and that he could see Andy was a child. According to the report, Gelhaus fired eight shots, hitting Andy seven times. Bullets struck a nearby fence and one went through a garage and lodged in the kitchen of a home. Other uninvolved residents could easily have been hit by these bullets. The District Court found that “there remains a triable issue of fact as to whether defendant Gelhaus’ use of deadly force was reasonable.”
In addition to the incident itself, the lawsuit contains other allegations that should be of great concern to the community and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
For instance, the suit alleges that Gelhaus has a history of propensity to recklessly draw his firearm and use excessive force; that he holds racist and extremist beliefs; that he was an instructor at a shooting academy whose founder held extremist, homophobic, racist and separatist views and that as a firearms instructor Gelhaus recommended that other deputies attend the same academy; and that he wrote and blogged about his affiliation with the academy and of his admiration for its founder. These allegations are still pending in court; if proven they would establish that Gelhaus is unsuitable for any community patrol job, let alone a supervisory position.
Law enforcement only works when the public trusts its officers to do good, and many members of the Sonoma County community do not trust Gelhaus and his decision-making abilities because of his actions that day that led to the tragic death of an unarmed child. At this time, when so many law enforcement agencies have become embroiled in controversy over the killings by officers of unarmed people of color, the sheriff’s decision to promote Gelhaus demonstrates a failure to understand the community’s needs and concerns.