Addressing Possible Conflict of Interest in Police Shooting Investigations

A demonstrator protesting the police killings of Ezell Ford and Michael Brown in downtown Los Angeles in August 2014.
A demonstrator protesting the police killings of Ezell Ford and Michael Brown in downtown Los Angeles in August 2014. | Photo: Craig Dietrich/Flickr/Creative Commons

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The police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford are on the minds of Sacramento lawmakers. On Tuesday, another bill reacting to the deaths arrived, this time seeking to restore public faith into investigations of police shootings.

This measure would address what some might consider the what's-wrong-with-this-picture nature of these investigations: Namely that they are conducted by district attorneys who regularly work with the law enforcement agencies involved in the incidents

AB 86, introduced by Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), calls for an independent panel to investigate police shootings "and other uses of force resulting in death."

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(Already in the current legislative session, begun Dec. 1, a lawmakerproposed to increase training for peace officers to handle mentally ill suspects such as Ezell Ford.)

Currently, district attorneys investigate police shootings in their own districts. These attorneys regularly work closely with police, causing many people to feel the attorneys will favor the police too often.

"I think there's a conflict of interest," McCarty said. "This bill would only improve the openness and integrity and increase public trust in the process."

Because the bill is so new, it has few details. The operative portion is only one paragraph, and doesn't specify who would conduct investigations, or provide other specifics. McCarty said one option is to have district attorneys from neighboring jurisdictions handle the investigations. Another is have the attorney general's office handle them.

McCarty said he has received input from the NAACP, the Sacramento Sikh community (which lost one of its own to a police shooting this year), and former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, who headed a committee a few years back to investigate a police shooting of a farm worker.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said the usefulness of such a bill would lie in the details. "It would depend on how high quality and how credible those investigations were," Kleiman said. "You're still going to need someone that looks a lot like a cop to do the investigation."

Last April, Wisconsin became the first state to require outside investigators to handle these kinds of incidents. The state requires two officers outside the agency to perform the investigation. Critics have argued that Wisconsin has never found a police officer to be at fault for shooting a suspect, and this law has not changed that fact.

The bill comes as Los Angeles has laid plans to outfit each of its police officers with body cameras, a topic of increased discussion since the killings, and a neighborhood council called for the creation of a panel to oversee police discipline.

Some advocates of reform have called for civilian oversight of police shootings. But McCarty said he wants law enforcement to handle these investigations, not civilians. "I don't think that works," he said. "I think an investigation needs to have professionals who know what they're looking for."

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