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Boys, Toys, and Guns — A Fatal Mix

Officers sworn to serve, protect, and keep the peace should not show off their guns to children and put them in their eager hands.

“Guns are not toys,” my military father taught me as a youngster, as hunter parents also tend to teach their children. “Toys are not guns,” police and sheriff deputies should learn. Confusing them can be deadly.

Officers sworn to serve, protect, and keep the peace should not show off their guns to children and put them in their eager hands. This happened in August of 2011 here in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, Northern California. The community was not happy about that, and it is even more angered now.

An article in the daily Press Democrat of 2011 shows a photo of a policeman handing a real automatic weapon to a young boy. “It bothers me that he’s reaching for that gun like it’s a toy,” commented Santa Rosa City Council member Gary Wysocky.

Forward to October 22, 2013: A 13-year-old boy walks peacefully through his neighborhood. He has a plastic gun in his hands. Perhaps he waves at neighbors. No one is alarmed or calls 911.

Meanwhile, two sheriff’s deputies on a routine patrol see the short boy and call in that he is a “suspicious person.” Ten seconds later that young boy bleeds from seven bullets shot into his body. Andy Lopez lies dead on the ground.

“Suspicious?” Why? Because he was in a Latino neighborhood? Because he was wearing a hoodie, like teenager Trayvon Martin, also murdered. Some of my college students wear hoodies, especially those who are people of color.

The deputy shot-to-kill. He had numerous other, non-fatal options. Beware of a “code blue” cover-up to protect the guilty.

Fortunately, the second deputy in the car had the sense to pause and think. He did not pull his trigger, even once, much less eight times. Not all law enforcement officers follow the Wild West code “shoot first and ask questions later.” May the killer not rest in peace, unless he confesses and expresses remorse, as any criminal should.

Andy’s parents, siblings and others may understandably be having trouble resting in peace these days. They read the rosary in prayer vigils for at least the first three nights after the killing. Yes, this reporter is angry, as are many in our community. Anger is an appropriate response.

Andy’s neighbors and supporters have appropriately returned to the scene of the murder various times and taken to the streets, even leaving school, for prayer vigils and marches in the hundreds to the sheriff’s office, which is “Closed until further notice.” A mass demonstration is scheduled for Oct. 30, Wed., starting at 5 p.m.

“In an unprecedented, sustained show of public emotion, hundreds of protesters—many of them children—marched for a third straight day to demand justice for 13-year-old Andy Lopez,” reports the daily Press Democrat. “A badge is not a license to kill,” read a banner by Jeronimo Caramona, an eighth grader and classmate of Lopez.

There are many good police officers, especially in small town Sebastopol, where I live, about fifteen minutes from the scene of the police crime. Their good work is made more difficult by this incident.

A former military police, Brian Bushon, is quoted in the daily as saying, “No one needed to hop out of the car and shoot him. The cops should realize 13-year-olds don’t carry AK-47s.”

“Local policing is important,” said Jonathan Greenberg, the father of two young boys, who live in Sebastopol. “If those cops knew that area, they would have known that the boys were playing with toys. No one called to complain. We are experiencing the militarization of the police. They are supposed to ‘serve and protect.’ The deputy was the aggressor.”

“I love the police here in Sebastopol,” Greenberg added. “They practice community policing. That deputy had no reason to get out of the car and kill the boy. That was a rush to judgment.”

Many letters to the daily’s editor have been sent. Among those published are the following comments:

  • “The police are at war with the people they are supposed to serve. They bully and shoot people because they can. They are armed like they are in Afghanistan. Who granted the police the power to just shoot people and walk away?”
  • “Police training focuses on hyped-up fear responses, owing in part to the nation’s post 9-11 extremism.”

May these seven shots by a trigger-happy deputy be heard around the world, as the people of Santa Rosa continue to cry out in grief and to protest this unnecessary killing.

The international news agency Reuters sent the story around the world with the headline “California cop’s mistaken fatal shooting of boy unfolded in seconds.” That article continues as follows: “The tragedy has reignited calls in the community for creation of civilian review boards to examine such incidents.” An AP story appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere.

The killing has “drawn national and international attention, including the interest of the Mexican government,” according to the Press Democrat. Though Andy himself was born in the U.S., his parents are from Mexico.

“People have to do something,” said Elbert Howard, a founding member of the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline of Sonoma County. “He’s a child, and he had a toy. I see that as an overreaction to shoot him down.”

An advisory panel of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission urged Sonoma County to create civilian-review boards in 2000 following eight fatal officer-involved shootings in less than three years, but that recommendation went unheeded. Since then, at least 26 people have died in officer-involved shootings in Sonoma County, some of whom were mentally ill. Of those, 14 were by the Sheriff’s Office or its deputies, rather than by city police.

The youngest, before Andy, was 16-year-old Jeremiah Chass, a high school student in Sebastopol. His family later settled their lawsuit against the county for $1.75 million.

“People are afraid to call the sheriff’s office, because they fear them,” commented one county resident, who requested anonymity. “I have more fear of the sheriff than I do of criminals.” She suggested that in the 2014 election Sheriff Steve Freitas should be replaced. “A man like Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver, who genuinely cares for the community, would be a good replacement,” she added.

“FBI to investigate boy’s death,” reads the headline on the Oct. 26 daily. They consider it a “civil rights type of case.” According to the Press Democrat, “The federal intervention is rare.” A New York Times article from the AP is headlined, “F.B.I. Begins Inquiry in Police Shooting of Teenager.” Others would prefer that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, rather than the FBI, take up the case.

Andy’s was an unjust killing that requires justice. His favorite color was white, so there have been white balloons at the events and the parents have requested people where the angelic white at the Oct. 27 and 28 funerals. This story is likely to continue evolving for a while.

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