For many years in Sonoma and Marin counties, it has been the norm to assign cases with officer-involved-shootings to a neighboring police department to investigate. After all, there is an obvious conflict of interest having officers from the same department investigate one another. So they need professional assistance and it’s been convenient thus far to have a nearby investigating agency examine the situation.
In light of two recent situations in the neighboring counties — both within 50 miles of each other — it begs the question of whether this is enough or if a higher level of accountability needs to be established.
On a July afternoon In Marin City, near Sausalito, 44-year-old resident Chaka Grayson was spotted sitting behind the wheel of a parked car by Marin County Sheriff Deputy Even Kubata.
The deputy’s story is that while on patrol, he saw Grayson, whom he knew from prior encounters. He also somehow “knew” that Grayson’s drivers license had been suspended. He whirled the patrol car around, got out and approached the vehicle that Grayson was in. At this point, Kubata reported, Grayson ducked down in the vehicle and began driving the vehicle at him. Kubata pulled out his service revolver and fired off nine shots at Grayson, wounding him three times in the arm. Grayson fled the scene and hid in an apartment in Marin City until community leaders, working with other members of law enforcement, coaxed him out so he could get medical care and face the situation. Grayson was briefly jailed because he had been on parole for a past offense – but was soon after released and new charges were not filed.
That was until earlier this week, when the Novato Police Department — the local agency chosen to investigate the shooting — sent its report to Marin’s District Attorney. It was almost a draw as to who was at fault and what really happened. According to the report, there was not enough evidence to charge Chaka Grayson with trying to run over the deputy with his car. And there wasn’t enough evidence to find that Deputy Kubata had done anything out of line in firing nine times at Grayson.
But there was enough evidence, apparently, to charge Grayson with evading an officer after he fled from the bullets. He faces those misdemeanor charges now and his public defender promises that the case will quickly become more about the deputy’s actions. Who wouldn’t flee in a situation where one was being shot at?
Critics of the Marin City case — including this writer — expected something like this to be the outcome. It is rare that local departments that investigate neighboring departments ever find law enforcement to be at fault. And in the case of Novato Police Department handling the investigation, there was a higher level of doubt among onlookers because the wife of Deputy Evan Kubota actually works for Novato Police — as a dispatcher. Talk about creating an appearance of impropriety!
At a July 30 meeting in Marin City, Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle acknowledged to community members that if he had known of the Kubota relationship in Novato, that he would likely have had San Rafael Police do the investigation. But it was now too late — and Novato would be in charge.
In Santa Rosa, where 13-year-old Andy Lopez was gunned down on October 22nd by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, residents are worried that a similar situation will take place and that Gelhaus, a self-described firearms expert and certified trainer of new deputies, will not be held accountable for the killing of Lopez, who had been walking along a street carrying a replica Air Soft BB gun rifle.
According to a news report from the Press Democrat:
The deadly incident unfolded when two deputies drove up behind 13-year-old Andy Lopez as he walked through his southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood with an airsoft gun, which shoots plastic BBs. A deputy ordered the teen to drop the gun. As Lopez turned, the barrel of his BB gun pointed toward the officers, according to investigators. The senior deputy fired eight shots at the boy, hitting him seven times, police said.
It would be an understatement to say that the Lopez’s local community is outraged over the incident in a way that has rarely been seen in Sonoma County, even though Lopez’s toy rifle did look pretty real and lacked an orange safety cap that is supposed to be on the end of it. Organized groups have taken to the street demanding that Gelhaus face charges. A Facebook group, March for Andy Lopez, has more than 5,400 members. They are calling for the head of Gelhaus, figuratively. And the fact that Sheriff officials are allowing Gelhaus back on duty, albeit desk duty, has fanned the flames of the protesters, who plan on being out on force and marching to the Sheriffs office this Tuesday, 12/10, in Santa Rosa.
While some say that Gelhaus was reacting to the sight of a “gun” the way that a police officer should, others say that his shooting eight times at the 140 lb Lopez as he turned toward the deputy was “overkill”. Why couldn’t this firearms “expert” see that this was a toy? Perhaps Lopez, a kid with no record of criminal activity or encounters with law enforcement, was actually turning in order to explain that to him?
|A Santa Rosa police detective compares
Airsoft BB rifle from Lopez with
actual automatic assault rifle.
Photo from Press Democrat
Worse, why wouldn’t this 24-year sheriff office veteran (and Iraqi combat veteran as well) use his community policing skills and assess the situation for one extra second, and figure out that he was about to shoot at an innocent boy barely in his teens?
Shortly after the shooting, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch issued a press release outlining the protocol used in handling investigations of officer-involved shootings, which like Marin, calls for neighboring agencies to investigate. The procedure has been in place for more than twenty years.
Perhaps in the interest of justice, and in the interest of having a lasting legacy to Andy Lopez, local law enforcement agencies should establish a new protocol for officer-involved-shootings. One that takes the onus off of partner agencies, where officers often know each other and even work together, and create a new, more transparent method of performing these investigations. Using the Grand Jury process would be one way. Another would be to create a committee using law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions, and including citizens from inside and outside the immediate area where the situation took place.
One thing is for sure and that is if we don’t do something different, if this kind of self-policing continues to take place, it is only going to erode the good reputation of law enforcement officials, elected and otherwise, as being a network of good-old-boys that can get away with the maiming and killing of citizens, such as Grayson and Lopez, who besides being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were not doing anything illegal.