California shifts police shooting probes to attorney general

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — New protocols announced Wednesday by California Attorney General Rob Bonta seek to provide more transparency around one of the most emotional and disturbing areas of policing: the fatal shooting of an unarmed civilian.

Investigations into such cases have previously been handled by the local police agency involved, with local district attorneys deciding whether the shootings were legally justified.

But a new California law adopted last year amid civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer turns that responsibility over to Bonta’s office under the premise that the state’s top law enforcement officer can be more removed from local pressures.

So, going forward, teams of investigators from the California Department of Justice will respond to the 40 to 50 times annually when a civilian without a weapon is shot to death by an officer. They will work independently from the local agencies, which still will conduct their own investigations.

Bonta was in the Assembly when he co-authored the law that took effect July 1. It was narrowed from a broader version that would have allowed local officials to also request state investigations where armed suspects were killed after Bonta’s predecessor raised concerns about the cost and workload. And it doesn’t apply to deaths other than by shootings.

“One of the most important tasks ahead for public safety and our society is building and maintaining trust between our communities and law enforcement,” Bonta said Wednesday. “Impartial, fair investigations and independent reviews of officer-involved shootings are an essential component for achieving that.”

The shift in responsibility drew mixed reactions from police and use-of-force experts as Bonta released five documents outlining how his office will handle its new role. The law’s primary author, Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, previously said five other states have variations on independent reviews of deaths caused by police.

“Law enforcement as a whole, they’re not progressive, they don’t like change,” said Timothy T. Williams Jr., a Black police tactics expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. “There’s going to be a lot of folks that don’t like it. But change is what’s needed, and change is going to happen, whether you support it or not.”

Williams was happy the investigations are going to the attorney general’s office and that Bonta is taking a progressive approach. The training requirements outlined in the protocols for the state investigators “are awesome,” Williams said, and should correct slipshod investigations he has seen at the local level.

But Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor of police studies at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he thinks the change is the latest step in undermining policing in California.

For officers, “the new No. 1 is ‘I could go to prison for doing my job,’ ” he said.

“They’re being officially told, basically, by the Legislature and by the AG, to wait until they’re fired upon,” O’Donnell said. “And of course, the major message it sends is the best way to not be in a police shooting is to not engage anybody in the first place.”

Under Bonta’s program, two newly established state teams, one based in Northern California and the other in Southern California, will have a combined 33 special agents and supervisors who can call on crime analysts, forensic experts and others as needed.

The state teams will focus solely on whether the shootings were legally justified, sending their reports to the California Department of Justice’s Special Prosecutions Section for a decision. The department will ultimately either file criminal charges or release a written report outlining why they weren’t warranted, Bonta said.

Local investigators will meanwhile review whether the officer followed departmental procedures or if there is any civil liability, as well as review any suspected crime that may have led to the shooting.

The attorney general’s new protocols themselves recognize the fraught nature of the offices’ new duties. They describe the investigation of officer-involved shootings as “often the most complex and demanding law enforcement responsibility because it involves death, intense public scrutiny and emotional impact.”

Brian Marvel, president of the rank-and-file Peace Officers Research Association of California, said he expects some initial “hiccups” but was hopeful Bonta’s office took his organization’s suggestions in developing its new protocols.

If so, “it’s a good step in the right direction,” he said.

“The vast majority of officer-involved shootings are justified, and I just think this is another layer of oversight,” Marvel said. “I think the AG’s office is going to find what we’re finding on the local level — that officers, they do it right and they don’t use officer-involved shootings unnecessarily.”

Police unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose said such shootings already go through “a transparent and exhaustive investigative process.”

“It is absolutely critical that this new process be grounded in evidence, based on the law, and not swayed by political pressure to ensure a fair process for everyone,” they said in a joint statement.

Bonta said he does not anticipate any problems or pushback from local law enforcement agencies or police unions, but he will be prepared if it happens.

“We expect collaboration, we expect cooperation, we expect commitment to a full, complete and thorough investigation, and we will have people on the scene that will make sure that that will happen,” Bonta said.