On Monday night, members of the public packed the meeting of the Community Healing Subcommittee of the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force. They were there to express their dismay, sadness, anger and, above all, their fear for their children and for themselves.
These same feelings were expressed at the Board of Supervisors meeting the next day.
As a member of the Healing Subcommittee (Vázquez) and as a supervisor (Zane) we, too, felt blindsided when we learned that Deputy Erick Gelhaus would return to patrol duty this week and that, depending on staffing needs, he might also be patrolling the Moorland area where he shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez less than a year ago.
During the this week’s meeting I, Francisco, did my best to explain that it was clear that Sheriff Steve Freitas was “going by the book” in making that decision. This simply means according to established law and procedures. (Just as the Sonoma County district attorney went by the book in not filing any charges against Gelhaus.)
One member of the audience rightly questioned why the book could not be changed. The reply was that a strong community and active citizen engagement can indeed make those changes.
A larger view of the book is the social contract. Historically, we as individuals were willing to give up certain rights in return for social order within our own clan or culture.
Later, civilization brought different cultures under one roof with the promise that every one of them would be treated equally under the law. However, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of “The Social Contract: The Principles of Political Right” once observed: There are city, state, and national laws.
But the real law resides in the hearts of the people.
What this means is that the shooting of Andy Lopez, like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., awakens the memory of a long history of injustices.
By choosing to go by the book, Freitas ignored this larger context. Furthermore, the manner in which the announcement was made, without consultation with the Board of Supervisors or the task force, has done serious, perhaps irreparable, damage to the tremendous amount of work that has been done in the past eight months.
Yes, the sheriff has the legal right to put Gelhaus back on the streets wherever he needs him. But to assert that right without consultation with other members of an implicit social contract is inconsiderate at best and an arrogance of power at worst.
To those of us in the community who are grieving the tragic death of Andy Lopez, the decision and the manner in which it was announced felt like a slap in the face.
With $4.3 billion in military equipment, police forces throughout the country appear more and more like a military force.
This is not just a problem for the Latino community that grieves Andy Lopez or the African American community that grieves in Ferguson; this is a problem for the United States of America.
The individual rights of Gelhaus may have dominated the sheriff’s decision to put him back on the street, but at what cost? The trust of the community has been damaged once again.
Tragedies of these proportions deserve more than a by-the-book response. Sonoma County leaders will need to come together as never before to demonstrate that they are listening to the heart of the people. There is much work to do.
The guiding principles of compassion and doing what is best for everyone will lead us to the type of deep healing our community expects.
Shirlee Zane is a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Francisco H. Vázquez is a professor at Sonoma State University and a member of the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, created by the Board of Supervisors in the aftermath of the shooting of Andy Lopez in October.