by Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard

It is autumn of 2015 in Sonoma County. Amidst the vibrant colors of grape leaves and pumpkins is the reality of glaring news headlines. These greet us daily with tragic stories of the latest mass school (and other) shootings and the most recent killings and abuses of innocent people committed by law enforcement.

A Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy, part of a SWAT team, stands in front of the Sheriff’s Department’s huge tank, or “armed personnel carrier.” Sonoma County, in California’s wealthy wine country, is heavily militarized. – Photo: Santa Rosa Press Democrat
A Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy, part of a SWAT team, stands in front of the Sheriff’s Department’s huge tank, or “armed personnel carrier.” Sonoma County, in California’s wealthy wine country, is heavily militarized. – Photo: Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The public media has a field day analyzing, posturing and interviewing countless professors, medical and legal professionals, politicians and self-styled “experts” who present all their theories and solutions for the tragic bloodletting.

The political leaders and powerbrokers proclaim that they have answers for the American people as they actually bury their heads deeper in the sand and increase their double-talk of what can be done to end the violence. They do nothing to change the laws to stop the gun violence and murders in this so-called land of laws and nothing to stop rampant abuse and murders on the part of law enforcement.

In this system, those who have been elevated and handed the power to create solutions are instead spending their time and the public’s money on plotting their elections or re-elections. They raise a ton of money for their personal priorities and the public and justice be damned.

It has now been two years since 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot down while walking to his friend’s house with a toy gun, killed by Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus. Gelhaus still patrols the streets of Santa Rosa, free and unprosecuted, as Andy’s family, friends and supporters continue to seek and demand justice.

It has now been two years since 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot down while walking to his friend’s house with a toy gun, killed by Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus.

Now, on the eve of the anniversary of Andy’s death, comes this most recent local news: A lawsuit, filed Oct. 5 by attorney Izaak Schwaiger and the Scott Law Firm in San Francisco, now exposes Sonoma County as the “jail from hell.”

The Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility in Santa Rosa has become a center for torture and brutality for the inmates, whose care and wellbeing have been entrusted to the jail employees – these being the sheriff’s deputies. Not only are they not being cared for, but, to the extreme contrary, the suit claims that the inmates there have been beaten and subjected to the most inhuman treatment the sheriff and his deputies can inflict.

Now, on the eve of the anniversary of Andy’s death, comes this most recent local news: A lawsuit, filed Oct. 5 by attorney Izaak Schwaiger and the Scott Law Firm in San Francisco, now exposes Sonoma County as the “jail from hell.”

Much like the tactics supposedly used only in “Third World countries,” the suit contains statements describing how deputies from the Special Emergency Response team, dressed in all-black uniforms and ski masks, entered inmates’ cells, handcuffed them and then savagely kicked and beat them for up to five and a half hours.

Reports from inmates document being stripped naked, punched, body-slammed to the ground and receiving blows to their heads, as well as other atrocities. The fear described by the inmates, as they lay waiting for their turns to come, listening to other prisoners scream and beg these “officers of the law” to stop hurting them, is unimaginable.

Deputies from the Special Emergency Response team, dressed in all-black uniforms and ski masks, entered inmates’ cells, handcuffed them and then savagely kicked and beat them for up to five and a half hours.

These reprehensible, lawless acts are human rights violations, as well as violations of the U.S. Constitution. The county sheriff is in charge of and is responsible for what happens in the county jail facilities, as well as for the actions of the deputies working there.

In Sonoma County, Sheriff Steve Freitas is responsible, period! He and his deputies must be charged, prosecuted and put in prison for torture, human rights violations and any other proven crimes.

This will never occur as long as the investigators of the charges mentioned in the suit are the sheriff and the Sheriff’s Department itself! Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has refused to investigate the charges herself and, instead, has directed witnesses to the Sheriff’s Department!

In Sonoma County, Sheriff Steve Freitas is responsible, period! He and his deputies must be charged, prosecuted and put in prison for torture, human rights violations and any other proven crimes.

We demand that DA Ravitch bring in an outside investigating body as we believe it is ludicrous to even think that any investigation run by Sheriff Freitas, involving himself and his deputies, will ever be fair or done in the name of justice.

To the residents of Sonoma County in particular, and to people who believe in our Constitution and human rights in general, we say this: It is way past time to rid the community of this law enforcement cancer. Freitas always gets re-elected because he runs unopposed and because he is supported with money coming from the huge wine industry and other big business interests, as well as law enforcement agencies.

To the residents of Sonoma County in particular, and to people who believe in our Constitution and human rights in general, we say this: It is way past time to rid the community of this law enforcement cancer.

This has to change and change now! Change now in the name of Andy Lopez and in the names of the countless other victims of law enforcement! Sonoma County must have a new sheriff, new district attorney, new assistant DA and, in general, a change in leadership.

We support and recognize the courage of the two plaintiffs in this suit, Marqus Martinez and Daniel Banks, as well as that of their families. We also acknowledge the extreme courage of the approximately 20 other still-incarcerated inmates who wrote letters describing in detail much of the same abuse.

We support defense and civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger and the co-counsel from the Scott Law Firm in their quest for justice for the two defendants named in the suit. We support asking the court to appoint an independent monitor of Sonoma County’s Main Adult Detention Facility jail; this is the third suit now before the U.S. District Court against the facility, all involving unconstitutional violations on the parts of corrections staff.

We remind the public that October 22nd is the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. In Sonoma County, there will be an event on that day celebrating the life of Andy Lopez. For further details, please go to the website: justicecoalitionforandylopez.com.

We remind the public that October 22nd is the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. In Sonoma County, there will be an event on that day celebrating the life of Andy Lopez. 

This statement is made on behalf of PACH, the Police Accountability Clinic & Helpline of Sonoma County. Elbert “Big Man” Howard is a founding member of the Black Panther Party and a founding member of PACH. He is an author, lecturer and community activist in Sonoma County and can be reached at bigman0138@aol.com.

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