by Dave Waddell
commentary posted Sept. 12
I’d like to plug an important, disturbing and highly instructive film that gets at some little-known truths about police killings and is now available for viewing online: “3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez.”
“3 Seconds in October” was produced and directed by Ron Rogers and is enhanced by Peter Coyote’s incomparable narrative voice. The 28-minute documentary recently received a regional Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Rogers’ film recounts the outrageous 2013 killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez and its aftermath. Andy was walking down a Santa Rosa-area street carrying a toy replica of an assault rifle when shot by Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus . After Gelhaus’ first bullet hit Andy in the heart, the deputy continued to shoot the boy “over and over and over again” as Andy fell and while he was on the ground.
“This boy was not a criminal; he was a boy with a toy,” a friend of the Lopez family says in the film.
Deputy Gelhaus trained other officers for the Sonoma sheriff’s office. Online, Gelhaus posted such sentiments as, “Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home.” His personal vehicle carried a mocking version of the “Coexist” bumper sticker with substituted symbols that included a gun crosshairs and skull and crossbones. Gelhaus pointed his gun at a shocked motorist just two months before he riddled Andy’s body with bullets.
Besides shining a light on Andy’s senseless killing, Rogers’ film performs a valuable service by describing an apparent “playbook” used by district attorneys, police chiefs and police unions nationwide to ensure that cops who kill rarely face any criminal or even career accountability. In studying the law enforcement killings in Butte County, I’ve witnessed District Attorney Mike Ramsey and the City of Chico run these same plays over and over and over again. In fact, Ramsey, who has been orchestrating exonerations for killer cops for 3 1/2 decades, has multiple plays in his extensive repertoire that did not even make the film’s list.
Law enforcement’s playbook tactics, as articulated in “3 Seconds in October,” include:
–Deny police wrongdoing (Ramsey, for example, shows up and provides that immediate denial at most every officer-involved shooting in Butte County, including at the killing of Myra Micalizio).
–Demonize the victim (Stephen Vest, anyone?).
–Conduct biased investigations to support the police. (Remember Eddie Gabriel “Gabe” Sanchez?)
–Defend and delay victim lawsuits (think Tyler Rushing).
–Keep police misconduct secret (Mark Bass, anyone?).
–Settle lawsuits to avoid a public trial (Remember Breanne Sharpe?).
–After lawsuits are settled, keep facts secret (I know all about such secrecy, having successfully sued the City of Chico to obtain public records its Police Department, on Matt Madden’s regressive watch as chief, went to disturbing lengths to keep from me).
–Deny systematic racism (think Desmond Phillips).
A typical Ramsey tactic -– one that didn’t make the film’s playbook -– I would label “Becoming adversarial with the aggrieved family members of the person police killed.”
Sadly, Andy Lopez’s family was also subjected to such cold-hearted cruelty. So as not to give away some especially infuriating moments in the film, I’ll merely say the Lopezes were treated unconscionably. So-called “investigators” from different agencies closed ranks to protect deputy Gelhaus, officially treating Andy’s killer as somehow the “victim.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from “3 Seconds in October” is that if there is zero accountability when police kill without just cause -– as in the “playbook” culture of Mike Ramsey’s Butte County — it seeds more such senseless murder.
Dave Waddell is a contributing writer to ChicoSol who is writing a book about Butte County police killings.