A California bill aimed at increasing the public's trust of investigations of on-duty officers who fatally shoot suspects is being proposed by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.
AB-86 would create a law enforcement panel, likely within the state Attorney General's office, to study each case of a California police officer fatally shooting someone and write reviews or issue recommendations.
The proposed legislation comes on the heels of several high-profile, fatal officer-involved shootings nationally in Missouri, New York and Lodi.
“I think there’s a growing appetite both at the national and local level to have a better and more transparent system regarding the investigation after these police shootings where there’s a fatality involved,” McCarty said.
A spokesman for McCarty said the assemblyman plans to meet with stake-holders to decide details, such as if the independent body would have subpoena power.
“It’s not about pressing criminal charges, subpoena powers and so forth,” McCarty said. “It’s about: There’s going to be a review of this by the authorities and the legal arm of the justice system, and should it be done by a local entity or someone with more independence such as a state-wide entity?”
Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano said police shootings are already subject to intense scrutiny.
“I can tell you and I think any chief will feel the same way: We take an oath of office as well as the District Attorney and we take that oath very seriously. Any shooting, involving an officer, is scrutinized more than any other,” Bejarano said. “We don’t want to leave any stone unturned, so it’s a very thorough investigation."
Attorney Eugene Iredale, who represents clients in police use-of-force cases, says more oversight is needed, even more than what AB-86 proposes.
“I think that it is a good first step, but not enough to do what needs to be done,” Iredale said.
Investigations of fatal officer-involved shootings throughout the county currently fall to the District Attorney.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis did not comment on this story today because she is still reviewing the bill, which was just introduced two days ago.
But in 2007, she released a 10-year study aimed at assuring the public that peace officers in San Diego County are performing their duties in a legally justified manner. That report detailed how the San Diego County District Attorney’s office investigated 200 officer-involved shooting cases with 201 suspects.
Total cases per year ranged from a low of 10 in 1996 to a high of 24 each in 1997 and 2002 for the county, according to the report.
Iredale believes that system is tainted, not just by close working relationships between officers and prosecutors, but also political contributions from law enforcement organizations that help elect the D.A.
“The entire system of political power in the law enforcement agencies relies on close coordination and administrative and political interdependence,” Iredale said.
At least two police chiefs in San Diego County disagree.
“In San Diego County, there is already in place a protocol for an administrative investigation and a criminal investigation,” said National City Police Chief Manuel Rodriguez. “Overall, it appears that this bill would only add to the stress officers must undergo while a shooting is being reviewed and investigated.”
Rodriguez pointed out that the Peace Officer Bill of Rights grants officers some protections not addressed in the bill.
Bejarano stressed how seriously investigators in the DA’s office take their responsibility.
“District attorneys would probably welcome not having that responsibility,” said Bejarano, who added that he wanted to study the details further but that the creation of one extra layer of oversight in the Attorney General’s office would likely be beneficial to law enforcement and the community.
“With the appropriate measures and checks in place, anything that restores and builds additional trust and faith in the criminal justice system might be beneficial to both parties, law enforcement and the community,” said Bejarano, who previously served as San Diego’s top cop.
Current San Diego Police Department Chief Shelley Zimmerman was not available to provide her thoughts on the topic today.
Officer-involved shootings happen more in the City of San Diego than more than 40 other mid-size cities in the country.
Those numbers are for 2012, 2013 and most of 2014 – and were compiled from local police departments. The figures include all officer-involved shootings, not just fatal ones.
The San Diego Police Officers Association did not have a comment on the proposed legislation.