It’s been almost eight years since 13-year-old Andy Lopez was gunned down on a neighborhood sidewalk in Santa Rosa, CA by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus. Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the Sheriff’s office at the time (as well as a firearms instructor and Iraq war veteran,) apparently mistook the Airsoft gun Lopez was carrying for an AK-47 rifle that it was designed to resemble.
Deputy Gelhaus fired nine shots at Lopez just three seconds after ordering Lopez to drop the gun, hitting him seven times. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Ten months later, after investigations into the shooting by the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced no charges would be filed against Deputy Gelhaus. He returned to active duty.
In the eight years since the shooting, leadership at the Sheriff’s Office has changed multiple times, Deputy Gelhaus was promoted to Sergeant and retired, the County settled a civil lawsuit with the Lopez family for $3 million, and a park that bears Andy Lopez’s name now stands where he was killed.
Sonoma County-based independent filmmaker Ron Rogers has spent the past seven years producing the short documentary 3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez. It recently had its first public screenings via two San Francisco Bay Area PBS affiliates, including Rohnert Park’s KRCB, the Northern California Public Media station that serves the Sonoma County area. While some may see seven years as long time to put a documentary together, changes to California State Law in that time made the investigative files of such cases as the Lopez shooting available to the public for the first time. Rogers, a lawyer and former Deputy District Attorney in Sacramento, makes good use of those files, photographs and videos.
In a radio interview broadcast before the film’s screening, director Rogers made clear that his film should not be seen as an “anti-police” documentary, but that when incidents like the Lopez shooting occur and investigations are held by other law enforcement agencies that “the public is right to question the credibility of what they’re being told.”
Having seen the film, I would say Rogers’ film is not so much an “anti-police” documentary as it is an “anti-police culture” documentary, particularly the “circle the wagons” culture that usually accompanies an officer-involved shooting. It’s the type of documentary that questions why Deputy Gelhaus was allowed to huddle with his union representative and lawyer for six hours in a hotel room before answering investigator’s questions while the Lopez family was questioned about their son’s possible gang activities and behavioral issues before being told their son was dead. It questions why a Santa Rosa Police Department investigator notified Gelhaus that he was being interviewed “as a victim.” It questions Gelhaus’s fitness for duty with testimony by an individual who states that Gelhaus drew his weapon on him during a routine traffic stop.
In its most disturbing sequence (of several disturbing sequences), it questions the culture of the Sheriff’s Office that employed Deputy Gelhaus and that sanctioned a process they referred to as “yard counseling” but what video recordings show was the systematic abuse of prisoners in the County Jail. The video of masked, military-garbed thugs in black beating up a prisoner is something that I would have expected to be released by Amnesty International after being smuggled out of an Eastern European Communist bloc nation, not from the center of California’s bucolic wine country. The “counseling”, apparently in practice for decades, was discontinued after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of inmates that was eventually settled for $1.7 million.
It questions the lack of oversight of law enforcement and highlights the need for independent review.
As a film, it belies it low-budget origins and presents itself well with quality cinematography, editing, and graphics work. There are a few interviews, but the heart of the film lies in the new investigative material available on the incident along with video testimonies and footage of the event and its aftermath. The film is narrated by actor (and Sonoma County resident) Peter Coyote. It may be only 28 minutes long, but it is an extremely efficient and effective 28 minutes.
At a time when many are demanding the re-thinking and/or restructuring of the approach to law enforcement in our country, 3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez should be required viewing for those who ask “Why?”
Click HERE for information on future screenings/broadcasts of the film. Blue Coast Films reports the film will receive a national screening on PBS in the fall with some stations scheduling an airing for October 22, the 8-year anniversary of the shooting.
Click HERE to listen to radio interviews with director Ron Rogers.