Task force proposes sheriff's department oversight in Sonoma County

The proposal was unveiled Monday evening by a task force set up after 13-year-old Andy Lopez was killed by a sheriff's deputy who mistook Lopez's airsoft gun for a real weapon.

The eighth grader's death unleashed a torrent of anger from people who said the deputy was too quick to kill.

"This is for all the Andy Lopez's in Sonoma County, " said community activist Frank Saiz at the onset of the meeting.

"We must walk the streets, ride the streets, and watch the police, " he exclaimed.

The 21 member task force has been meeting for more than a year, trying to work through community anger and mistrust to develop an action plan to improve law enforcement practices.

Activists have been pushing for aggressive oversight.

"It would be a shame if you didn't follow what you know to be ethical," said a woman giving her name as Magick. "It's happening all over the country and it's a tragedy."

The task force has already developed 20 recommendations for the Board of Supervisors to consider; an independent auditor is their 21st and final piece of work.

"We're going to get something built and then we're all going to work on making it better every single day," declared task force member Amber Twitchell.

An independent auditor's office would be staffed by attorneys, who would act as liaisons for the public.

The office would field citizen complaints and review allegations of police misconduct or excessive force, among deputies, jail, and probation personnel.

Task force members researched best practices in other jurisdictions, and ultimately modeled their independent review proposal after the city of San Jose's watchdog program.

"It's a very good move for us, " task force chairman Eric Koenigshofer told KTVU. "The office in San Jose has been very successful over the years, and demonstrated public benefit for the community."

After Andy Lopez was shot while walking in his neighborhood, investigations by the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sonoma County District Attorney looked into the deputy's actions, and concluded they were justified.

Deputy Eric Gelhaus faced no criminal charges and returned to duty.

Should the county move forward with funding an independent auditor's office, the elected Sheriff would have to agree to it.

"It would be a very big change for us, " Lt. Mark Essick of the Sheriff's Dept. told KTVU at the meeting.

"But it's something we welcome and something that's happening nationally, as law enforcement moves toward more transparency and accountability."

Some in the audience expressed disappointment that the auditor would not have the power to issue indictments or subpoena witnesses.

"My fear is nothing is going to change, " said activist Elaine B. Holtz to the group, "but the police should demand that we have oversight, it protects them as well as the citizens".

Task force members ask for patience as the proposal debuts.

"Year one, we're gonna build it, and every year after that, we will refine it and learn from it, " reassured Twitchell. "Remember it's an entirely new thing for this county."

Sonoma County supervisors are expected to receive the task force's full report next month.