I’m going to write stuff that regards the Andy Lopez shooting from a few years ago but my intent is NOT to re-open that debate. My goal, here, is to highlight an example of a real-life 1984 moment. My point is about the corruption of the “free press” and how that affects day to day living. For any who may have missed the book, ‘1984’ is a future dystopian novel written by George Orwell. The protagonist in the book is a guy named Winston Smith whose job is to re-write – that is, “fix” – archived news stories that no longer support the current government orthodoxy.
Andy Lopez was a 13 year old boy who was walking down the street in Santa Rosa, California with a toy gun that looked real when he was shot dead by a Sheriff’s Deputy named Gelhaus. Originally, I thought Deputy Gelhaus must have been alone in the cruiser but it turned out that Gelhaus was the passenger and the driver was another deputy named Schemmel. Deputy Schemmel was an experienced deputy but new to the Sonoma county Sheriff’s Office, so Deputy Gelhaus was showing him some of the areas he was going to need to know.
When I found out there were TWO deputies on the scene at the time of the incident, a question popped into my mind: why did Deputy Gelhaus empty his service weapon into the kid while Deputy Schemmel never fired a shot? It’s not an unreasonable question. It became my focus because, to me, it was critical in the question of whether Deputy Gelhaus had acted properly or not. So, I waited and watched for the answer. I got it, too.
The Santa Rosa Police Department conducted the investigation into the shooting. At the conclusion of their investigation, a Lt Henry of the SRPD did a press conference to disclose the findings. A reporter asked the question I had asked, why one shot and the other didn’t. The answer was that Deputy Schemmel was still maneuvering the car into the “ready position” and by the time he stopped the car, the threat had been “neutralized.” It’s a key detail.
Cops have a way of protecting themselves in these situations. It’s called the “ready position.” They park the car, open the doors, then crouch down behind them, using the door as a shield and the gap between the car frame and the door frame to shoot through should shooting become necessary. The day after the shooting, the local paper, ‘The Press Democrat’, ran a photo of the two officers in the ready position.
But Lt. Henry reported that Deputy Schemmel was still parking the car while Deputy Gelhaus was “neutralizing the threat.” Whoops. How could Deputy Gelhaus have fired from the ready position if the car was still moving? THAT meant Deputy Gelhaus had left the support of his partner and the security of his cruiser and put himself in a position where he might very well have felt “vulnerable.” But, in turn, THAT meant that Andy Lopez died as a result of poor police procedure.
It has come up again because now, the pseudo-Supreme Court is being asked to shield the deputy that did the shooting from lawsuits and the story that reported the information said the deputies had taken the ready position and THEN confronted the young Andy. Because it had been a focus of particular interest to me, I knew that was wrong. I started looking for the contemporaneous news stories that had reported that Deputy Gelhaus had left the vehicle before it was parked.
I couldn’t find them. They’re just…gone…
I DID find the official DA Report that supported the story that the Deputies had taken the ready position before confronting Andy. I found other newspaper accounts that said the same thing. Frustrated (and, frankly, a little scared), I kept digging. All I could find said the same thing. Then, I stumbled on this story in the Press Democrat. The story, itself, was about a witness tho gave information that conflicted with most other eye-witness reports but it contained this: “The two deputies have said they spotted him from their patrol car and pulled up behind him. Gelhaus said he got out of the car, drew his gun and ordered Lopez to drop the rifle while Schemmel parked the car.” (Emphasis added.)
It seems Winston missed one.
Deputy Schemmel was still parking the car while Deputy Gelhaus was “neutralizing the threat” but that story highlights possible poor procedure – so the story has been changed. Even if the original report had been wrong, good journalism says you don’t pull the story. You correct the original and report the correction. I’ll tell you this: I know that District Attorneys cover for cops all the time. It’s part of the job, really. But when the press does it too? That’s ‘1984’ territory…