Sonoma County Residents See Changes Years After Andy Lopez Death
Ana Maria Salgado stands on July 29, 2016, by the sign she helped build at the site where Andy Lopez died. Salgado advocated for a memorial park to be built at that field along Moorland Avenue. The county plans to begin construction by the end of this year. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Andy Lopez's death hit many Sonoma County residents and law enforcement officers hard. The 13-year-old was shot seven times by a sheriff's deputy who believed the toy gun the boy was carrying was a real AK-47. Lopez died at the scene, a tragic death by the field where he played regularly with siblings.
The Oct. 22, 2013 shooting sparked protests, marches, vigils and dozens of meetings in the weeks and months that followed, with many asking how the county would respond.
Some residents demanded changes to policing tactics of largely Latino neighborhoods just outside the city of Santa Rosa. They wanted greater accountability and oversight of law enforcement. But then, the fight turned to something broader.
Nearly three years after Lopez was shot, residents in his community say his death has empowered them to change a historical lack of investment by the county government in their neighborhood and other working-class unincorporated areas.
"Since the Andy Lopez incident, the community has come together as one voice. It kind of woke us up," said 70-year-old Esther Lemus, who lives down the street from where Lopez died.
"When a community is behind you and is a team, your voice is heard but if you are only one person I don’t think you are going to be heard," Lemus said.
She recently saw the county public works department install lights on her street. Over the 46 years she had lived there, she said it was "pitch black" after sunset and very dangerous for pedestrians. The new street lights are part of several actions taken in response to a county survey of local residents' needs.
Sonoma County also created an office to review the sheriff's internal investigations of civilian complaints against officers. Its first director, attorney Jerry Threet, began auditing those investigations earlier this year, and said he is hopeful it will increase transparency and public trust in law enforcement, particularly among Latinos.
County To Build Andy's Unity Park
Other changes, like a memorial park for Lopez on the field where he died, are still in the works. The county plans to begin construction of the 4-acre, multimillion-dollar project by the end of the year. The design for the park's facilities, including a tot playground, skate park and community garden, incorporated input from dozens of youth and residents, like Ana Maria Salgado.
"Andy deserves a place where he is recognized here," said Salgado in Spanish. "Andy's Unity Park represents the hope that if we unite, there can be positive changes for our children and grandchildren."
Currently, residents of Lopez's neighborhood have to travel about 2 miles to reach the closest park facilities. So local kids often play in the field where Lopez was shot. Neighbors have donated plastic slides and other toys, which are spread out on the lot. A white makeshift memorial for Lopez, built by relatives and friends with wooden boards and a tent, still holds photos of a smiling Lopez, teddy bears and flowers.
The 'Forgotten Side'
Salgado, a stay-at-home mother of three, said Andy's Unity Park, once built, will have a big impact on the quality of life of hundreds of children and youth in the area, which she and neighbors call "the forgotten side."
"It's the forgotten side because there are so many things and services lacking that are plentiful on the other side," said Salgado, 48, referring to whiter and wealthier city neighborhoods across the freeway. "Our youth don't have those same opportunities."
As elsewhere in the nation, significant educational, health and economic gaps persist between Latinos and other better-off residents of Sonoma County. The Roseland area, next to Lopez's neighborhood, ranks near the bottom for life expectancy and well-being, compared to 50 other county census tracts in a 2014 county report.
For most of her life, Salgado had never been politically active. By her own accounts, she was timid and focused her energies mostly on her family. But she said Lopez's death moved her to become more vocal, putting in hours of volunteer work advocating for Andy's Unity Park and other changes. The shy stay-at-home mom has become a community activist.
"This park has the heart of the community of Moorland and a lot of people that supported us. Here's their effort," Salgado said. "It fills me with pride that children were able to contribute their voice and vote for this park project."
The county estimates the project will cost about $3.5 million, but that figure might change after construction bids are received, said Scott Wilkinson, a planner with the Sonoma Regional Parks Department.
Sheriffs, Neighbors Help Paint Mural
Blocks down from the park's proposed site on Moorland Avenue, local children also participated in the painting of a new mural, with a design that was voted on by neighbors.
The wall had been covered with graffiti on and off for years. The Sheriff's Office, tasked with cleaning up gang graffiti, would paint over it, but it'd come back in a matter of days, said Melonie Willis.
So she and Esther Lemus tried something different: painting a mural with residents and the Sheriff's Office. Three sheriff's employees responded to their invitation, in uniform. One of them brought his kid, too, Willis said.
Painting the mural out there on the street, alongside officers and children, was a very positive experience, said Willis. It's a good step in thawing the distrust and fear some residents still feel toward the Sheriff's Department, she said.
"Neither side are monsters and we need to interact with each other," said Willis, who wants more community policing to address crime in her neighborhood. "One sheriff was saying, 'I'm having fun.' I hope some of the kids that were out there heard that, too, and got to see that side -- that OK, they are approachable, I can talk to them."
The mural shows doves of peace flying around a big tree. The words "peace," "community" and "respect" were also painted.
"We had 3-year-olds out here. It was really great," said Willis, who plans to involve neighbors and the Sheriff's Office again to paint more murals in the neighborhood.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has approved about $2.6 million to fund that project and other recommendations from a task force created to improve police-community relations and community healing in the aftermath of Lopez's death, said Efren Carrillo, chair of the board.
Those include Andy's Unity Park, the creation of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, and opening up staff positions at the Sheriff's Office to beef up training and internal investigations.
"It was the community that was galvanized that demanded us to address societal issues. But they made recommendations, too, that we were able to support," Carrillo said. "That work doesn't stop, the discussion and the dialogue has to continue."