After KQED first reported Gelhaus' promotion last month, dozens of protesters renewed calls for him to be put on a desk job, transferred or fired.
Gelhaus' promotion is final, according to the sheriff's office. Freitas believes the officer is "clearly deserving" of the promotion to supervisor, given his 26 years in law enforcement and awards for service, such as the office's medal of valor for pulling a suspect from a burning car, said Sgt. Spencer Crum.
In his new role, Gelhaus supervises eight to 10 deputies on a given shift.
In 2014, members of a county task force to improve police-community relations after Lopez's death urged Freitas to consider removing Gelhaus from street patrol due to public concerns.
Freitas responded that there were no legal reasons to keep Gelhaus from patrol duty as he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the Sonoma County district attorney, and an internal investigation had also determined the officer did not violate any sheriff's office policies.
"The Sheriff's Office and I have received literally hundreds of calls, letters of support, and personal interactions with the public that expressed support for Deputy Gelhaus' return to patrol duty," Freitas' written response says. "This includes neighborhoods throughout the entire County. As Sheriff I am elected by the County as a whole and must balance needs for all citizens."
Gelhaus Cleared After Investigation
To Parry, Lopez's death on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2013, "was a terrible thing." But he said other officers would have reacted in a similar way, given the circumstances.
According to the county district attorney's report, the whole incident -- from the time Gelhaus spotted Lopez and called for backup to reports of shots being fired -- lasted about 19 seconds. As Lopez was walking away from sheriff's deputies, Gelhaus, an experienced firearms instructor, believed that the teen's replica gun was real and called out to Lopez to drop the gun.
Both officers told investigators that Lopez still held the perceived weapon as he began to turn around, and "the barrel, which had been pointed down, began to ascend," according to the report. That's when Gelhaus began to fire. He shot Lopez seven times, and the teen died at the scene.
The district attorney's report concludes that no charges against Gelhaus were warranted because, given his training and experience, the officer believed he was faced with a "'do or die dilemma."
"You can bring a rifle from down to shooting in less than a second," said Parry. "So when does Erick Gelhaus get to make a decision on whether he’s going to live and die? Does he have to listen to the first round go by his head, hope it doesn’t hit him square in the forehead? When does he get to defend himself from somebody raising a rifle at him?"
Critics Question Promotion, Efficacy of Investigations
Susan Lamont, from the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez, said her group also presented the sheriff with a petition with over 2,500 signatures calling for Gelhaus to be removed from patrol. She is not surprised that fellow veterans support Gelhaus.
"They act as though killing 'just one person' makes it all OK -- certainly a leniency they don't grant to others" outside of law enforcement, said Lamont. "They say no complaints have been sustained against him. But complaints are almost never sustained against officers, no matter what they do."
Others say the officer pulled his weapon hastily in his encounter with Lopez, and that it wasn't the first time. Santa Rosa resident Jeffrey Westbrook alleges that during a 2013 traffic stop, Gelhaus pointed a gun at him and a passenger in his car without reasonable cause.
"I felt very victimized, disrespected," said Westbrook, who had been driving to work at an IT company. "The man from the minute he pulled us over had no dialogue with us, didn't explain why we're pulled over. He was just in haste to pull his weapon out."
Westbrook filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office and disputed the ticket Gelhaus gave him — for an allegedly unsafe lane change.
While a Sonoma County Superior Court judge threw the ticket out, the sheriff’s internal affairs unit found Westbrook's complaint unfounded. Westbrook said he has little confidence the investigation was unbiased.
"It's just sheriffs investigating sheriffs," he said.
In California, law enforcement agencies are required to have a procedure to investigate citizens' complaints. But the state has some of the most restrictive laws in the U.S., which prevent the public from accessing a law enforcement officers' personnel records, according to an investigation by WNYC Public Radio.
Recent bills seeking to open up police misconduct records in some of the most egregious cases have failed, including SB 1286 by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), which died in committee in May.
That leaves people who seek greater accountability and transparency for their law enforcement agencies "nibbling at the edges," said Lamont.
"We certainly need legal changes because law enforcement here in California have been working for decades to protect law enforcement from any oversight by citizens or even the rest of the government and to keep their records secret," she said.
New Office Reviews Investigations of Complaints
In an effort to increase public trust, the county hired a civilian auditor to review the sheriff's investigations of the public's complaints against officers. It was set up as a direct result of nearly two years of community meetings after Lopez's death.
Members of the public can now submit their complaints at the more neutral Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach instead of at the sheriff's department, said Jerry Threet, who began working as the office's first director in April.
Threet said he will be able to watch investigations as they unfold, and have access to body-cam videos, recordings of interviews with witnesses and documents to determine whether his office agrees with the findings or not.
Threet can’t require the sheriff to discipline deputies, and lacks the power to conduct a separate investigation of alleged officer misconduct. But he said his office, which is also recruiting a civilian advisory board to give input to the sheriff's office about its policies, is an important step to improve what he called a "breakdown of trust between law enforcement and the community."