With the recent police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota stirring demonstrations and vicious retaliatory shootings of police officers, I thought it would be important to dialogue with the general public how society holds police officers accountable after officers have taken the life of an individual.
While prosecutors found justification in each of the police shootings I investigated, I did work in other units where officers were the target of an investigation. Specifically, while serving as a detective in the Sex Crimes Unit, I had several investigations of officers committing sexual assaults where they were dismissed from the department and/or criminally charged.
While serving as a detective in the Homicide Unit in Baltimore County, Maryland, our duties were not merely limited to investigating murders. Homicide detectives were responsible for investigating all murders, questionable deaths, juvenile deaths occurring outside of medical care, and all police shootings, regardless if the subject shot by the police died as a result of their wounds. The process of a police shooting was more complicated than investigating a street murder. While a routine murder investigation focused on the criminal aspect of the crime, a police shooting diverges twofold. As homicide detectives investigated the shooting from the criminal aspect, the Internal Affairs Unit detectives worked alongside the homicide detectives, conducting an administrative investigation.
Under the criminal dimension of the investigation, detectives would implement all of the standard investigative methodologies readily available. The scene would be taped off, tent markers placed next to evidence, the scene documented with photographs, sketches, and diagrams, officers and witnesses interviewed, handguns collected, ammo and shell casings counted, radio and other communication devices reviewed, and the list goes on.
Homicide detectives would also evaluate the scene as it related to the elements of the crime and exceptions—or justifications—for the shooting. Did the officer perceive that their life, or the life of another, was in jeopardy? Even though the officer believed that life was in danger, this does not preclude that the officer was justified in their actions. Detective would need to complete the case, document interviews, receive the autopsy report (which can take up to 10 weeks in Maryland due to toxicology examinations), and submit the case folder to the prosecutor’s office for review. It is here where prosecutors determine if the officer’s actions were justified. Furthermore, should cases arise where there was a concern of integrity in investigating the case or making the decision whether or not to prosecute, a neighboring police agency would be called in to complete the investigation or an independent prosecutor’s office would be contacted to review the case and make the legal determination.
On the other hand, Internal Affair detectives would also meticulously pour through the detailed facts derived in the investigation and make a necessary decision about whether or not officers—including those who were on the scene and were not involved in the shooting—had acted in agreement with departmental rules and regulations. While there is a plethora of regulations, such as wearing your hat or speaking with the members of the public in a polite and courteous manner, the top priority of the Internal Affairs unit was to account for the justification of each round as it aligned with the use of force policy. For example, if a car were barreling down the road in an attempt to run over an officer standing in the roadway, the officer would be justified in un-holstering their weapon and shooting rounds at the driver in an effort to stop the threat. However, if the officer stepped out of danger’s way and continued shooting at the vehicle as it passed by their location, these rounds could be construed as being ‘out of policy’. In such a scenario, the prosecutor would most likely determine no criminal prosecution. However, the Internal Affairs Unit would recommend disciplinary sanctions for the rounds discharged out of policy. Such sanctions could include warnings (verbal or written), further training, loss of leave, demotion, or even termination.
In watching the interviews with everyday civilians following the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I noted how they were demanding ‘immediate’ disciplinary action against the officers, which raised a great deal of concern surrounding Constitutional rights and guaranteed due process. Like civilians, police officers are also entitled to Constitutional rights. They too have the right to the due process clause and to ensure that their rights are not trampled. However, given their position in society as keepers of the peace and the immense powers they are endowed with, it is expected to hold them to task when they exercise their powers and to ensure that they have not abused their authority.
If civilians are entitled to these fundamental and detailed investigative processes, why wouldn’t we want to use the same procedures when investigating our officers? If we as a society expect that civilian involvement in crimes is thoroughly investigated before charging a citizen, but accept rushing to predetermined judgments when officers are at the center of the case, who is to say that we will create a new illogical standard of probable cause and have that standard employed with its citizenry?