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Police, Community Relations Strained After Teen's Death

Oct 30, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 9:43 am

Sonoma County, Calif., is probably best known for its good wine, green sensibilities and otherwise healthy and peaceful living. But that peace was shattered last week when a county sheriff's deputy shot and killed a young teenager carrying a toy gun.

Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez was walking through an open field near his home in semi-rural southwest Santa Rosa on Oct. 22 when he was spotted by two sheriff's deputies. Lopez was carrying a plastic pellet gun, a toy replica of an AK-47. It did not have an orange tip on the barrel to indicate that it was a toy, as required by federal law.

The deputies yelled for Andy to drop the weapon, says Santa Rosa Police Lieutenant Paul Henry.

"As the subject was turning toward him, the barrel of the assault rifle was rising up and turning in his direction," Henry says. "The deputy feared for his safety, the safety of his partner and the safety of the community members in the area."

Deputy Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots, striking Andy seven times. The other deputy, a trainee whose name has not been released, never left the patrol car and did not discharge his weapon. An investigation is pending.

The killing has sparked near-daily protests and vigils in the mostly Latino neighborhood. A protest on Tuesday was the largest so far, with several hundred angry, but otherwise peaceful, demonstrators demanding a transparent investigation into Andy's death.

The protest was dominated by high school and college students. It also attracted a lot of mothers, such as Catarina Gudino, who brought her 13-year-old son to the protest.

"I have a lot of hate, and it's hurtful. It could have been my son," she says. "I can't even imagine losing a child. And especially the way he died, he didn't have a chance, there's no chance at all. They were shooting to kill."

Gudino says there's a history of tense relations between police and the Latino community in southwest Santa Rosa, tensions that seem to have eased recently.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo says the healing process can't begin too soon.

"A tragic event occurred. We all bear the responsibility," Carrillo says. "If we're going to point the finger we ought to be pointing it at ourselves as a community, so this doesn't happen again and we need to start building from that."

Carrillo says he's looking for a way to start a public discussion about police and community relations, as well as the prevalence of replica guns.

Meanwhile, the FBI has begun its own investigation to determine whether there were any federal civil rights violations in the shooting.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Sonoma County, California is probably best known for its good wines, green sensibilities and otherwise healthy and peaceful living, but that peace was shattered last week. A county sheriff's deputy shot and killed a young teenager who was carrying a toy gun. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the shooting has provoked much grief and raised questions about police relations with the Latino community.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The streets of Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat, were filled with several hundred angry but otherwise peaceful protestors yesterday. They were demanding a transparent investigation into the death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.

PROTESTORS: Andy. Andy. Andy. Andy...

GONZALES: Lopez was walking through an open field near his home in semi-rural Southwest Santa Rosa on October 22nd when he was spotted by two sheriff's deputies. Lopez was carrying a plastic pellet gun, a toy replica of an AK-47. But it did not have an orange tip on the barrel indicating that it was a toy, as required by federal law. The deputies yelled for Lopez to drop the weapon, says Santa Rosa Police Lieutenant Paul Henry.

LIEUTENANT PAUL HENRY: As the subject was turning toward him, the barrel of the assault rifle was rising up and turning in his direction. The deputy feared for his safety, the safety of his partner and the safety of the community members in the area.

GONZALES: Deputy Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots, striking Lopez seven times. The other deputy, a trainee, whose name has not been released, never the left the patrol car and didn't discharge his weapon. An investigation is still pending. The killing has sparked nearly daily protests and vigils in the mostly Latino neighborhood. Yesterday's protest, the largest so far and dominated by high school and college students, also attracted a lot of mothers.

CATARINA GUDINO: I have a lot of hate and, you know, it's hurtful. I mean, it could have been my son.

GONZALES: Catarina Gudino brought her 13-year-old son to the protest.

GUDINO: I can't even imagine losing a child. And especially the way he died, it's just he didn't have a chance. There was no chance at all. They were shooting to kill, you know? It's sad.

GONZALES: Gudino says there's also a history of tense relations between police and the Latino community in Southwest Santa Rosa, tensions that seem to have eased recently. Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo says the healing process can't begin too soon.

EFREN CARRILLO SONOMA COUNTY SUPERVISOR: A tragic event occurred. We all bear the responsibility. If we're going to point the finger at this point, we ought to be pointing it at ourselves as a community so that this doesn't happen again. And we need to start building from that.

GONZALES: Carrillo says he's looking for a way to start a public discussion about police and community relations, as well as the prevalence of replica guns. Meanwhile, the FBI has begun its own investigation to determine whether there were any federal civil rights violations in the shooting death of Andy Lopez. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.