Many Documented Cases of Flawed Police Investigations into Officer-Involved Killings
There is a reason why police agencies increasingly look to outside sources to investigate officer-involved shootings. A lot of it has to do with best practices and the appearance of transparency. But there is actually a more fundamental issue – police agencies have traditionally done a poor job of policing the police.
Supervisor Matt Rexroad got his column wrong last weekend when he wrote: “Greenwald does not cite even one instance of law enforcement and prosecutors doing a bad job of investigating police-involved deaths. You would think that if this happens over and over again it would be easy to cite just once instance.”
The fact is this does happen “over and over again” and, had Mr. Rexroad taken one second to Google for such cases, he would have found so many examples that we could probably write a book – or even a series of books – on them.
I have a lot of respect for Mr. Rexroad – I think he is an honest broker and a straight shooter most of the time, but next time he wants to call me out, I would appreciate that he have his facts right.
I would also argue that the cases I have come up with are probably just scratching the surface of what is out there. Part of the problem here is that we do not know what we do not know.
As we reported last week, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty is sponsoring legislation that would make it state law to do what we have requested in the Michael Barrera death – have an independent investigation. In Mr. McCarty’s legislation it would be the Attorney General’s office which has the expertise to investigate complicated cases but also the distance to separate themselves sufficiently from local law enforcement.
One of the models that the assemblymember points to is in Wisconsin, a new law enacted under Republican Governor Scott Walker.
In Wisconsin it was flaws into the investigation of Dontre Hamilton in 2012 that led the state legislature to pass a law that requires external investigations of police shootings.
In that case, critics allege that Milwaukee police officers were allowed to conduct interviews with witnesses that should have been carried out by a more objective agency, according to a report published by Wisconsin Public Radio.
While the Milwaukee County District Attorney declined to prosecute the officer, an independent investigation concluded that the officer “treated Mr. Hamilton as a dangerous criminal instead of following his training and treating Mr. Hamilton as an (emotionally disturbed person).” The statement noted that the officer’s approach, including the pat down, was “out-of-policy.”
That led to the officer being fired from the department. But protesters were angered that no charges were brought. An attorney for the family told the media, “When an officer says, ‘So, you wanna fight, huh?’ and then unloads 14 rounds into a citizen of this community taking a nap in a downtown park, something is wrong and we are going to get to the bottom of it.”
Governor Scott Walker signed into law in mid-2014 legislation that deaths in police custody be investigated by an outside agency, using independently gathered evidence. At the time it was the first of its kind in the nation.
Following the decision to charge officers in the death of Laquan McDonald, a year after he died, the Chicago Tribune did an investigative study and found the Chicago oversight system, which does have an Independent Police Review Authority was fatally flawed.
They write: “It is a system seemingly designed to fail. Chicago police officers enforce a code of silence to protect one another when they shoot a citizen, giving some a sense they can do so with impunity.
“Their union protects them from rigorous scrutiny, enforcing a contract that can be an impediment to tough and timely investigations. The Independent Police Review Authority, the civilian agency meant to pierce that protection and investigate shootings of citizens by officers, is slow, overworked and, according to its many critics, biased in favor of the police. Prosecutors, meantime, almost never bring charges against officers in police shooting cases…”
Their stats are remarkable: “Of 409 shootings since the agency’s formation in September 2007 — an average of roughly one a week — only two have led to allegations against an officer being found credible, according to IPRA. Both involved off-duty officers.”
They quote police union attorney Joseph Roddy who said that the figures “suggest a deep problem.
“It’s hard to believe,” Mr. Roddy said in an interview. “Michael Jordan couldn’t make 407 out of 409 shots — even from the free-throw line.”
Chicago too volatile for your tastes?
Fine, on August 4, 2015, an independent monitor report obtained by the New Orleans Times-Picayune found that “New Orleans Police detectives ignored or mischaracterized evidence in an internal investigation to try to clear an officer in the 2012 shooting of an unarmed man.”
Writes the paper: “The draft report by the Office of Independent Police Monitor presents a scathing critique of the March 2012 raid in which 20-year-old Wendell Allen was gunned down inside his Gentilly home by then-NOPD officer Joshua Colclough. The report also criticizes the department’s investigation of the shooting.”
They continue noting that the 34-page report “found the detective assigned to the internal probe consistently misstated witnesses accounts and ignored crucial evidence — including personal body-camera video filmed by one of the officers.”
More: “The NOPD investigation by the Homicide division and the Public Integrity Bureau ‘searched only for and interpreted evidence in ways that confirmed their preconceptions of preexisting beliefs’ that Colclough and other officers involved in the raid did not violate department policy.”
The DA actually did their job here, they charged the officer with manslaughter, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison for shooting Mr. Allen.
Is that not evidence of the police doing a flawed investigation?
How about Pompano Beach, Florida, where officers failed to secure and cordon off evidence at the scene?
They summarize the report as follows: “A young mother dies after police fire eight bullets through her car windshield. A teen, lying face down, is killed when an officer fires two bullets in his back. More than 180 Georgians were fatally shot by police. Nearly half were unarmed or shot in back. Not one officer faced criminal prosecution.
“A year-long investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News exposed flaws in the way the state handles police shootings and led to grand jury reform that Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law in April 2016,” they write. “Reporters analyzed thousands of pages of records and conducted more than 100 interviews with prosecutors, police, grand jurors, family members and others in the most comprehensive review of police shootings in Georgia history. Details of each case are available in an online database that identifies every fatal police shooting in Georgia since 2010 and continues to be updated when new incidents occur.”
Following the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott, the Post and Courier did an investigative series that concluded, “When police pull the trigger in South Carolina, investigators fail to answer key questions about what happened, fail to document the backgrounds of the officers and demonstrate a clear pattern of double standards that favor police.”
They write: “A Post and Courier investigation uncovered case after case where agents with the State Law Enforcement Division failed to answer key questions about what happened, failed to document the troubled backgrounds of the officers who drew their guns, and failed to pinpoint missteps and tactical mistakes that could be used to prevent future bloodshed.
“Never-before released dashboard videos also reveal a disturbing pattern of officers shooting at and into vehicles. In statements to SLED, officers said they fired because they were afraid of being injured or killed by these cars and trucks. But the videos show that some officers were out of harm’s way when they opened fire. And SLED case files show little or no documentation that the officers’ accounts were challenged over these inconsistencies.
“The thoroughness of these investigations can mean the difference between justice delivered and justice denied. A shoddy examination can hamper prosecutions and make it impossible to convict those who are criminally culpable; it can lead to rogue officers remaining on the streets with badges and guns; it can undermine public trust in law enforcement.”
These are just some examples we found with a very basic Google search. In fact, this is far from an exhaustive list, they are gleaned from the first two pages of the search.
Kevin McCarty told the Vanguard that New York, Connecticut and Wisconsin all have new systems that require independent investigations into police shootings. If the assemblymember’s bill passes, California could become the fourth state to adopt the policy statewide.
Former President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing recommends mandating “external and independent criminal investigations in cases of police use of force resulting in death, officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, or in-custody deaths.”
There are clear examples outlined and documented above that demonstrate notable cases where police and law enforcement have conducted flaw investigations. What is clear now is that Yolo County and the local communities need to have their own protocols. Among the communities, only Davis has an independent police auditor.
As we pointed out last week, independent review is about transparency, not blame.
The assemblymember told the Vanguard that “the bill talks about the need to improve the public trust in officer involved shooting investigations.
“Unfortunately we see these events continuously – now we see them with our own eyes with body cameras and dashboard cameras,” he explained. “It’s a system right now that is untenable in trying to focus on public trust and integrity of the process. There’s an inherent conflict of interest with our local DAs and law enforcement.
“Our local DAs really can’t police the police,” he added. “I’m convinced that there has to be a better way about going about the process and bringing more independence and public trust along the way.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting