After more than four years, millions of dollars in legal costs and unreconciled distrust, Sonoma County’s leaders lost their challenge to the lawsuit filed by Andy Lopez’s family. The federal lawsuit was filed against Sonoma County and Deputy Erick Gelhaus for the shooting of the family’s 13-year-old son.
The county now must decide whether it will go to trial or settle the suit. The county must also decide if the lesson here will finally bring change to Sonoma County’s law enforcement culture.
On two occasions, the editorial board of the Press Democrat has suggested the case be settled. While I support settlement, if this is all the county does, a grave injustice will have been committed.
I believe the effort must involve owning the mistake and ensuring that this will never happen again. Owning the mistake includes finally reaching out to Andy’s family and asking for forgiveness. This was never done.
As for ensuring this sort of event doesn’t happen again — that’s a much larger project. While Andy’s death led to the resignation of the incumbent sheriff and the first contested election for sheriff in more than 25 years, it has not led to any substantial reform of the Sheriff’s Office.
We all have hopes that Sheriff-elect Mark Essick will fulfill his promises to make changes. However, anyone who implements change will face resistance from powerful forces within. This will be a test, a moment of truth about Essick’s ability to lead the change he has indicated is necessary.
Those powerful forces resisting change include the county supervisors. Their reluctance to face up to past repeated failures has prevented an honest review of Andy’s killing. Instead a massive effort was made to portray this 13-year-old as the cause of his own death.
The facts about this case have only been made public through legal action. If this continues, there could be a new effort to hide the past by avoiding a trial and the use of a confidentially agreement to hide important facts about Andy’s death. If the county avoids transparency via a confidential settlement, it will be a violation of our community’s right to know and our right to change.
The problems in the Sheriff’s Office extend to the mishandling of a domestic disturbance call that ended in the tragic death of Glenn Swindell and a subsequent $1.9 million settlement and the “yard counseling” incidents at the jail. The videos of the disturbing practices in the latter were revealed by another lawsuit that ended in a settlement of $1.7 million. These facts highlight shortcomings in department training and practices that take an unacceptable toll on human life, not to mention the county’s stretched-thin budget.
Any settlement in the Andy Lopez case should be part of an effort to bring real change to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. It should not be an excuse for a cover-up or a refusal to deal with the deficiencies of the Sheriff’s Office. It would be a huge disservice to Andy’s family and to the citizens of Sonoma County who deserve true and honest service.
John Mutz was a candidate in the June election for Sonoma County sheriff.
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