Sheriff speaks at public forum

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, along with Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett, held a public forum Tuesday where community members voiced concerns and asked questions of law enforcement policies.

The event, held at the Sonoma Valley Grange, was organized and moderated by Sonoma County Board of Education trustee, and longtime Boyes Hot Springs resident, Gina Cuclis as a way for Sonoma’s top-ranking law enforcement officers to connect with Valley residents and address issues in the community.

Freitas opened the meeting thanking the members of the audience for their involvement and adding that he felt it was important as an elected official to connect with his constituents. He explained that Sackett was in attendance to add “local context” and address any areas that might be unfamiliar to the sheriff.

A 30-year law enforcement veteran, Freitas said that “sometimes (law enforcement) officers get hardened and it’s an important part of this job to connect with the community to hear what’s really going on.”

While the event was slated to focus on issues pertaining to the Sonoma Valley region, members of the public were most concerned about the recent shooting and killing of Santa Rosa teen Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy, while Lopez was holding a toy, “air soft” AK-47 assault rifle.

At the beginning of the meeting, and while addressing question after question about the shooting and the surrounding case, Freitas told the audience that he could not talk about the Lopez incident because it is an ongoing investigation. He did note, however, that he and his deputies will be waiting for the county district attorney’s conclusions as to what changes must be made in the Sheriff’s Office.

Several members of the public, who were not asked to identify themselves, expressed concern about the sheriff’s and his deputies’ overall sensitivity to, and their specific relationship with, the Latino community. The sheriff made clear that there are “two sides to every story” and that he is implementing a system in which patrol officers wear a camera to record what is going on so there are no questions as to what actually happened. He also said he relies on his Latino Advisory Committee and could be in favor of a citizen review board.

Freitas and Sackett said gang crime in the Valley was down, with 85 incidents in 2012 and 81 incidents in 2013.  According to Freitas, gang-related crime makes up 6 percent of incidents in Sonoma Valley, 3 percent in the city limits and 8 percent in the county. “Any reduction we can get in gang crimes is a good thing,” he said.

Freitas also noted that DUIs in the Valley were in “decline,” with 72 issued in 2012 and 70 in 2013. When asked about the correlation between DUIs and the growth of tasting rooms around the Plaza, Freitas said he did not have enough information to comment. However, Sackett said he did not see any connection between tasting rooms and DUIs, although with the Sonoma City Council preparing to consider greater regulation of tasting rooms, he said his department would be further investigating potential related crimes.

But the biggest challenge in his three-decade career, Freitas noted, has been realignment – a state decision to relieve prison crowding by moving prisoners to local jails.

“This is the biggest change in public safety that I have seen in my 30 years,” Freitas said. He added that, before realignment, people stayed in the Sonoma County jail for an average of 22 days. But with new policies, he has prisoners with 15-year sentences.

“I’m just going to address the elephant in the room,” he said. “We have no money for health care. We have great health care, but for these long-term prisoners, it’s different. We don’t do hip replacements. We are now having to look into geriatric care.” He urged residents to contact their elected state government officials to address overcrowding in prisons and realignment issues.

Freitas, who said he is working to train his deputies to have a “customer service attitude” in all situations, is open for public feedback and encouraged the public to contact him with concerns. To contact the sheriff, call 565-2781, or go to sonomasheriff.org.