The October 22 killing here of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a hail of bullets from sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus has resulted in daily peaceful marches, prayer vigils and speaking events honoring Lopez and calling for justice, as thousands in the northern California community continue to mourn and express outrage.
The killing has also this week led to a federal civil rights lawsuit being filed on behalf of the Lopez family. “There is a practice of using deadly force and covering it up by investigations that are superficial,” attorney Arnoldo Casillas said at a November 4 press conference in San Francisco, according to the daily Press Democrat. Casillas, who filed the suit, contends that the killing was unconstitutional because it violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limits police authority.
Casillas interviewed witnesses who dispute law enforcement claims about the shooting. He asserts that the first shot was fired within three seconds of Gelhaus’s command to Lopez to drop what the sheriff's deputy claims he thought was a real gun. Seven bullets hit Lopez. One pierced his heart; at least one him him in the buttocks. Non-lethal alternatives were possible. The second deputy traveling with Gelhaus did not fire a single shot -- and did not even have time to step out of the vehicle before the boy's body lay fatally shot on the street.
Last year, Casillas won a $24 million dollar settlement for the family of a Los Angeles boy who was shot once and paralyzed by police while playing with an airsoft BB gun, similar to the one that Lopez was carrying to return to a friend when he was killed.
In a 2007 killing of African-American high school student Jeremiah Chass in the nearby town of Sebastopol, the Sheriff’s Office was compelled to pay a $1.75 million dollar settlement to the family. In both cases, investigations by outside police departments concluded that the cops were merely following protocol -- which too often seems to be “shoot first, ask questions later.”
But what is officially reported and what actually happens on the street may differ. That's why having next-door-neighbor law enforcement agencies investigate the killings is starting to look more and more like damage control than independent or objective reviews. More bluntly: are they amounting to cover-up investigations by law enforcement departments tasked with investigating each other?
Lopez Family and Others Speak Out