Such questions have yet again brought up the need for a civilian review board, which could potentially have subpoena powers and could provide taxpayers with a mechanism to oversee the public servants whose salaries they pay. In fact, a civilian review board was recommended for Sonoma County by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2000, after a one-year probe into a spate of officer-related deaths and the conflicts of interest inherent in local protocol for investigations. Civilian review was criticized by law enforcement, then as now, as unnecessary.
Even longtime activists like Mary Moore admit that civilian review boards aren't perfect. "I am personally one of those that feels that civilian review boards have their downsides," she says. But considering the current practice of local departments investigating each other, Moore adds, "I just don't see that anybody would trust that process to be either transparent or accurate. We definitely need an outside eye on this."
Longtime police-accountability activist Robert Edmonds points out that in the 26 officer-related fatal shootings that have occurred since 2000—a number that includes deaths caused by Taser—no officer has ever been convicted of any wrongdoing. Edmonds says this underscores the need for outside investigations, even while predicting that civilian review boards can create extra levels of bureaucracy—and won't always stop complaints. "Police say they'll be stacked with liberals who are opposed to police at all times," Edmonds notes, "and liberals will say it's stacked with conservatives who side with police at all times."
Still, Edmonds says, something needs to be done to stop the cycle of citizens being shot. Looking at other models in San Francisco and beyond, a civilian review board could be set up in such a way to provide that opportunity. As Marty McReynolds of the ACLU stated last week, "Only such an independent investigation can supply the facts needed for corrective recommendations and give the public confidence in the actions of the agents pledged to protect our community."
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SOMBER MEMORIAL A visitor lights a candle on the spot where Andy Lopez was shot by a sheriff's deputy last Wednesday.
Sheriff Frietas asserts that the existing grand jury serves as the impartial outside body that police accountability activists continue to demand. Comprised of 19 voluntary applicants, the grand jury delivers the final report on the district attorney's findings into officer-related shooting investigations.
But a community like that of Andy Lopez's won't see itself represented in the grand jury. The current grand jury, for example, is very predominantly white and over 50 years old. "Typically, grand jury membership involves a time commitment of some portion of two to three days a week," reads the grand jury's operational summary, and who, living in the low-income neighborhood of Moorland Avenue, has that kind of time?
The FBI will investigate the shooting, and has stated that Andy Lopez's civil rights will be an issue in their investigation. This can hopefully address questions about the shooting's racial implications and the marginalization of the Latino community at large in Sonoma County. Just this month, Santa Rosa police and SWAT members surrounded a house for 11 hours after reports of a man firing a gun at his wife. Why would officers wait 11 hours when dealing with a man shooting a real gun and only wait 10 seconds when dealing with a teenager carrying a replica gun? Could it be that the man was a middle-aged business developer living in Fountaingrove, instead of a teenager in a hoodie walking in a largely Latino neighborhood?
Chances are that amid the slow investigation process, more facts could come to light via a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Lopez's family, who reportedly has hired an attorney. This could yield much more information on the shooting than is available to the public or the press, says Santa Rosa attorney Patrick Emery, who represented the family of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old shot and killed by county deputies in 2007.
The wrongful death lawsuit filed by Emery on behalf of the Chass family resulted in a
$1.75 million out-of-court settlement. But it also resulted in a collection of evidence that Emery says conflicted with official reports at the time coming from the sheriff's department, the SRPD and the Press Democrat.
That evidence was never stifled by a nondisclosure agreement; if the family wanted to, they could have released it, says Emery. "In the Chass case, my clients chose not to speak further once the case was settled. It was their choice simply to avoid further emotional upset, and that was a very emotional personal decision they made."