Last week, Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez announced that shootings involving officers of the Pasadena Police Department will be investigated by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department from now on, rather than by PPD’s own investigators. This move was hailed in some quarters as an improvement in oversight of the department. Sadly, it is a step backward.
Historically, as with most police departments, PPD’s own investigators have scrutinized officer-involved shootings. But a department’s investigation of its own officers invariably creates concerns about bias. Members of the public rightly question whether investigators can be fully objective when examining the conduct of colleagues who they may have worked alongside for years.
To address these concerns, after the 2009 shooting of Leroy Barnes by PPD officers, the city retained an outside, independent entity to examine PPD’s investigation. That entity, the Office of Independent Review (OIR), is a group of attorneys originally created to provide oversight to the Sheriff’s Department, but which has reviewed high-profile incidents at other agencies as well. OIR’s review of the Barnes shooting resulted in a 38-page report detailing the incident moment by moment, analyzing the investigation and issuing recommendations to improve future investigations and reviews of shootings. The ACLU and other civil rights organizations have called on Pasadena to formally commit to retaining OIR to review any shooting. Pasadena has so far declined to create any such policy, but after the shooting of Kendrec McDade in March 2012, the city again hired OIR to review the shooting and the department’s investigation.
Simply handing the investigation of shootings to the Sheriff’s Department provides fewer safeguards than having PPD investigate under the review by an outside entity. Using investigators from a different police agency partially addresses the issue of bias, although in those communities where trust in police is most tenuous (which is where shootings most often occur), many will likely think that police simply look out for their own and it matters little whether investigators are from the agency involved in the shooting or the one that operates just across the city line. But review by the Sheriff’s Department falls more seriously short in two other respects.
First, removing OIR takes away a layer of oversight. OIR reviewed PPD’s work, meaning each step of the investigation got a second set of eyes that could identify any gaps, leads that weren’t followed, or questions that weren’t asked. And investigators from any agency are likely to be more careful and conscientious if they know their work will be reviewed by an outside entity. Taking away OIR removes that additional layer of review and the chance it will catch something the initial investigators missed, and the investigator’s sense of working under scrutiny.
Second, it’s hard to understand why Pasadena believes investigators from the Sheriff’s Department would be an improvement over those from the PPD, when the Sheriff’s Department has been wracked with scandal and mismanagement so serious as to result in the recent resignation of Sheriff Baca and the indictment of a number of Sheriff’s Department officers. These problems reflect directly on the Sheriff’s Department’s internal investigations: In fall 2012, the county’s Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence found that the Sheriff’s Department’s process for reviewing use of force in the jails had multiple deficiencies, was “ineffective” and resulted in multiple well-documented lapses in investigations. Last year, an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice described flawed investigations into uses of force by deputies in the Antelope Valley and found “a pattern of reluctance to hold deputies accountable even when they commit serious violations of [Sheriff’s Department] policy.” Even the recent federal indictments included senior members of the Sheriff’s Department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau — the unit assigned to investigate criminal conduct by Sheriff’s Department employees — accused of obstructing justice. In light of these problems, it is baffling that Pasadena’s leaders think that handing its investigations to such a troubled agency would increase community confidence in the investigations’ results.
While the ACLU has criticized OIR for being too close and too deferential to the Sheriff’s Department, and thereby failing to address serious systemic problems, its reviews of outside agencies have not shown similar shortcomings. But since the role of OIR may be uncertain in light of changes to oversight at the Sheriff’s Department, if Pasadena leaders want an alternative, they can preserve the present structure by hiring a police auditor that reports directly to the City Council. Such a position could not only provide an independent review of shootings, but could report to City Council on other aspects of the PPD’s operations, rather than requiring overworked council members and their staff to rely on the department’s own reports as the basis for their oversight. That would be a real improvement in police accountability.
Reproduced from the Pasadena Star News (3/25/14); Peter Bibring is senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.