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Police, Community Relations Strained After Teen's Death

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Sonoma County, Calif., is probably best known for its good wine, green sensibilities and otherwise healthy and peaceful living. But that peace was shattered last week when a county sheriff's deputy shot and killed a young teenager carrying a toy gun.

Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez was walking through an open field near his home in semi-rural southwest Santa Rosa on Oct. 22 when he was spotted by two sheriff's deputies. Lopez was carrying a plastic pellet gun, a toy replica of an AK-47. It did not have an orange tip on the barrel to indicate that it was a toy, as required by federal law.

The deputies yelled for Andy to drop the weapon, says Santa Rosa Police Lieutenant Paul Henry.

"As the subject was turning toward him, the barrel of the assault rifle was rising and turning in his direction," Henry says. "The deputy feared for his safety, the safety of his partner and the safety of the community members of the area."

Deputy Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots, striking Andy seven times. The other deputy, a trainee whose name has not been released, never left the patrol car and did not discharge his weapon. An investigation is pending.

The killing has sparked near-daily protests and vigils in the mostly Latino neighborhood. A protest on Tuesday was the largest so far, with several hundred angry, but otherwise peaceful, demonstrators demanding a transparent investigation into Andy's death.

The protest was dominated by high school and college students. It also attracted a lot of mothers, such as Catarina Gudino, who brought her 13-year-old son to the protest.

"I have a lot of hate, and it's hurtful. It could have been my son," she says. "I can't even imagine losing a child. And especially that, the way he died, he didn't have a chance, there's no chance at all. They were shooting to kill."

Gudino says there's a history of tense relations between police and the Latino community in southwest Santa Rosa, tensions that seem to have eased recently.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo says the healing process can't begin too soon.

"A tragic event occurred. We all bear the responsibility," Carrillo says. "If we're going to point the finger we ought to be pointing it at ourselves as a community, so this doesn't happen again and we need to start building from that."

Carrillo says he's looking for a way to start a public discussion about police and community relations, as well as the prevalence of replica guns.

Meanwhile, the FBI has begun its own investigation to determine whether there were any federal civil rights violations in the shooting.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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