Sonoma County resolved the Andy Lopez lawsuit without acknowledging any fault or liability, but the $3 million settlement speaks for itself.
Lopez, a 13-year-old boy, was carrying an airsoft BB gun near his Santa Rosa home when he was shot to death by sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus on the afternoon of Oct 22, 2013. Gelhaus shot the youngster seven times in an encounter that lasted less than 20 seconds; his partner didn’t fire a single round.
Gelhaus, now a Sonoma County sheriff’s sergeant, said he mistook the BB gun, which was missing its orange tip, for a real AK-47 assault rifle. District Attorney Jill Ravitch cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.
The July 2014 decision was controversial, but the threshold for convicting a law enforcement officer for a death that occurs in the line of duty is, as it should be, high. Still, as we said at the time, that doesn’t mean the shooting was justified or unavoidable.
Letting a civil jury decide would have been risky for the county — and for Gelhaus, who was denied immunity from personal liability in the wrongful death case filed by Andy’s parents.
A federal appeals court panel also concluded, after reviewing Gelhaus’ videotaped demonstration of the shooting, that Andy never pointed the toy gun at the deputy or acted aggressively.
“In the end,” Sheriff Rob Giordano said in a video posted online shortly after the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the $3 million settlement, “the Sheriff’s Office, the county decided the best answer was to settle the case.” We concur.
The settlement, the largest ever for the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, is in line with payments in high-profile police shootings around the country in recent years, including $1.5 million to the family of Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and $6 million to the family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed while playing with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland. Sonoma County settled two other civil rights cases against the Sheriff’s Office this year for a combined $3.6 million.
Giordano offered his “deepest condolences” to the Lopez family, and he urged anyone with replica firearms to get rid of them. “Don’t buy them,” he said. “They’re just too dangerous.”
The sheriff is right. In the two years after Andy’s death, the Washington Post reported, police in the U.S. shot and killed 86 people carrying pellet guns, toy guns and non-firing replica guns.
A California law enacted after the shooting requires most airsoft weapons to have bright, fluorescent coloring in addition to the federally mandated blaze orange tip, which had broken off the gun Andy was carrying.
There are no silver linings in the death of a 13-year-old boy.
But actions since Andy’s death could prevent a similar tragedy. Training improvements at the Sheriff’s Office include a sophisticated simulator to better prepare deputies for snap decisions in life-and-death situations. The use of body cameras offers additional opportunities for training, review and accountability.
Sonoma County also established the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach to audit internal investigations and make policy recommendations. It’s still a work in progress, with conflicts surfacing between Giordano and retiring Director Jerry Threet. But Sheriff-elect Mark Essick takes office in two weeks and the supervisors are recruiting a new IOLERO director, so there’s a chance for a fresh start. Tuesday’s settlement can be, too.