Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has written to the California Attorney General asking why his office declined to investigate a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office deputy’s shooting of David Pelaez-Chavez in late July.
Ravitch wrote the letter on Sept. 7, and neither Attorney General Rob Bonta nor anyone from his agency has responded, she told The Press Democrat on Thursday.
Ravitch’s letter adds her voice to those questioning the attorney general’s response under a new state law that gave his office more power to investigate police shootings.
The shooting of Pelaez-Chavez by Deputy Michael Dietrick is being investigated by Santa Rosa Police. They will forward their findings to Ravitch’s office to see if criminal charges should be filed.
The attorney general in August declined to investigate the shooting, even though the law now requires the agency to investigate anytime law enforcement kills a person who is not armed with a deadly weapon.
But the attorney general’s investigator on the incident, named in Ravitch’s letter as Jamin Teague, found that Pelaez-Chavez was armed.
Pelaez Chavez was holding gardening tools, and, according to the Sheriff’s Office, reaching for a rock when Dietrick shot three times and killed him from a distance of 10 to 15 feet.
Ravitch’ letter sought documentation of the decision and further information about how the state agency determined Pelaez-Chavez was armed with a weapon that “might be considered deadly.”
“It would seem that any object in the physical possession of a decedent might qualify as a deadly weapon given the analysis in this matter,” Ravitch wrote, “regardless of whether being used to assault the officer.”
In a brief statement, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said the agency was “still reviewing” Ravitch’s letter.
For weeks, the state agency‘s press office refused to answer questions about whether they had reviewed body camera footage of the shooting before ruling Pelaez Chavez was unarmed. In the end, the agency confirmed that it had not seen the footage before deciding not to investigate. The agency also did not send anyone to the scene, though sheriff deputies captured on body camera footage at the scene seemed to believe California Department of Justice investigators would come.
In an interview, Ravitch said she had not yet reviewed the evidence in the case and was not calling on the attorney general to open an investigation. She was, however, worried the state agency had been hasty and sought more information about how Bonta was interpreting the new law, enacted July 2021. Lawmakers wrote the bill as a police reform effort in the wake of high-profile uses of force by law enforcement.
“I was concerned that the decision had been made without enough evidence and it was a little preliminary given the situation,” Ravitch said.
Ravitch’s office has not received the case from SRPD yet, she said, and so had not begun its review of whether the shooting was legal and justified.
“I have confidence in the agencies that are investigating and I have confidence in our office’s review,” she said. “I hope that the public will trust us to do a good job.”
According to an interpretation posted online by the attorney general, the office considers items that are not designed as weapons but could inflict harm as deadly weapons only under limited circumstances.
“Objects that have a legitimate non-weapon purposes are considered deadly weapons only when, based on all the circumstances, they are actually being used in a manner likely to produce death or great bodily injury,” the interpretation online reads.
In body camera footage, Pelaez-Chavez is not seen threatening deputies with the hammer and gardening tool, though during the chase the deputies say he was banging the tools against a tree. Some activists and family members have questioned sheriff department officials’ interpretation that Pelaez-Chavez was trying to throw a rock when Dietrick began firing.
Pelaez-Chavez, who was barefoot, appears exhausted from the long chase over hilly terrain and through creek beds. Videos show Dietrick advanced toward Pelaez-Chavez, not the other way around.
The attorney general’s decision, and seeming reticence to discuss it, have become a flashpoint in debate over the shooting in Sonoma County.
Members of a citizens panel that advises Sonoma County’s law enforcement oversight office voted Sept. 12 to send a letter to Bonta calling on state prosecutors to reverse their decision and investigate the shooting. The decision was a unanimous vote of the Community Advisory Council, a part of the Sonoma County Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.
Civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who represents Pelaez-Chavez’s family in a forthcoming wrongful death lawsuit against the county, said he agreed with Ravitch’s letter.
“You need to be telling us why you’re not going to investigate,” he said of Bonta’s agency. “Is this how the attorney general’s office is going to play it? Everything is a deadly weapon?”
Bonta made a decision that “flies against the legislative intent” for increased oversight from his office, Schwaiger said.
The attorney general’s message appears to be “Yeah, OK, don’t feel like it,” Schwaiger said.
Staff writer Colin Atagi contributed reporting.
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or [email protected]. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88
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