County weighs office to oversee sheriff in wake of shooting

Officials in a Northern California county appeared set to create a new independent auditor's office that would oversee the sheriff's department in the wake of the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy by a sheriff's deputy.

Sonoma County supervisors expressed strong support for the proposal at a meeting Tuesday and gave staff until June 16 to come up with a budget and job descriptions for the office, the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa reported ( ).

“We need to turn this around fast,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “It's going to cost some money. It's got to go into this budget.”

The office would review citizen complaints against the sheriff's and probation departments and any shootings by deputies. It also would engage with the community about police practices, according to the Press Democrat.

The proposal was among 21 recommendations made by a task force studying community relations with law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of eighth-grader Andy Lopez's October 2013 shooting death. It is modeled after a San Jose auditor's office staffed by attorneys.

A sheriff's deputy mistook a pellet gun Lopez was carrying for an assault rifle, and he shot the boy as he walked near his home in Santa Rosa, a city of about 170,000 people north of San Francisco.

Lopez's death aggravated racial tensions in his mostly Latino neighborhood and led to large demonstrations to protest police brutality.

Sonoma County prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges against the deputy, Erick Gelhaus, saying he fired multiple rounds in response to what he believed was an imminent threat of death. Gelhaus has since returned to duty.

Task force chairwoman Caroline Banuelos urged the supervisors to quickly adopt the auditor plan.

“It will bring about healing and change we're looking for,” she said.

Among the task force's other recommendations was improving diversity at the sheriff's office, expanding mental health services in schools, and establishing regular public review of use-of-force practices.

Andy LopezCaliforniaCalifornia NewsErick GelhausSanta Rosa

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