County Police Departments Can No Longer Investigate Their Own Officers’ Use-Of-Force Incidents

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — Local police agencies in Riverside County have adopted a new policy that dictates that police use-of-force incidents will no longer be investigated solely by officers from the same agency.

An outside local agency will now determine whether the officer’s actions were appropriate under the new plan. 

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin describes the change as a timely clarification of how use of force is investigated in the county.

“When the government uses force on a civilian, we’ve got to examine that and we’ve got to transmit our findings to the public,” he said. “These investigations have to be done by an outside agency.”

Law enforcement officers in Riverside County have been involved in 53 fatal shootings since 2015, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings nationwide. In 2019, departments in the county reported to the California Department of Justice a total of 61 incidents that resulted in either death or great bodily injury.

It is unclear how many such incidents have taken place in 2020.Riverside County District Attorney spokesperson John Hall reported that investigators from his office have been called to the scene of 12 police use-of-force incidents so far this year in the county, six of which were fatal.

Only two officers in Riverside County have ever been charged with murder for fatal shootings while on the job.In 2003, District Attorney Investigator Dan Riter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for a fatal shooting near the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission. Former Sheriff’s Deputy Oscar Rodriguez is currently facing a murder charge for a 2014 fatal shooting while on duty in Coachella.

Hestrin says that the new policy increases transparency while maintaining the integrity of the county’s investigation of police use of force, but some departments have questions about what the change will cost and what they can afford in today’s pandemic-battered economy.

While many departments already turn to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to conduct use-of-force investigations for them, the cities of Riverside, Murrieta, Corona and Hemet police departments — and the sheriff’s department itself — have previously conducted their own inquiries into their officers’ actions.

But, effective July 1, the practice of self-investigating was officially rejected by the Allied Riverside County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff (ARCCOPS), a countywide group of law enforcement leaders that considers and establishes overarching protocols for policing in this region.

This decision was unanimously supported by the county Board of Supervisors on July 14, with the passage of a resolution to create a new, cooperative task force within the sheriff’s department. It aims to increase transparency and will incorporate civilian oversight into police use-of-force investigations across the county.

According to the resolution, four options are now available to local police departments:

  • Commit an investigator to the new sheriff’s department’s multi-agency Force Investigation Detail — which would mean participating departments pay nothing for these investigations.
  • Contract with the sheriff’s department’s Force Investigation Detail, at a yet undetermined cost.
  • Have an investigator from another agency, including the district attorney’s office, serve as a primary investigator, while the department’s staff provide support, with the cost determined by the two departments.
  • Or, partner with another department to trade investigative responsibilities.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said his is the only department in the county, more than 7,000 square miles in size, that has the staff large enough to manage these kinds of investigations, which can be costly, time-consuming and tie up significant resources and manpower.

The district attorney’s office has led investigations of the sheriff’s incidents since July 1.

The county has also agreed to provide an unspecified amount of funding for the task force, but local police departments will still need to pay for this service. Exactly how much, though, has yet to be determined.

“It’s very difficult to come up with a cut-and-dry cost for investigating an officer-involved shooting,” Bianco said. “A simple investigation could cost $10,000 to $15,000, while a more complex investigation could cost $100,000.”

Hestrin and Bianco both said they hope that local police departments will be in a position to assign an investigator to the new multi-agency team, eliminating the cost they’d have to pay for such investigations, but they acknowledged that might be difficult with the current economy.

Several departments, including the Coachella Valley’s four municipal police departments in Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indio and Palm Springs will continue to work with the sheriff’s department on these investigations, but some noted that could change when they receive final word on what the once-free service will cost them.

“We are hoping that the county will provide funding to help,” Indio Police Department spokesman Ben Guitron said. “Until cost and funding are clear, we don’t know for sure what our choice will be.”

Adding clarity to police shooting investigations

Hestrin said the new policy will make what was an “unclear process, more clear.”

And, while he added that he does not question the integrity of investigations done prior to this change, he believes now is the right time to make it. 

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution in June that publicly denounced George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. They also unanimously voted in August to declare racism a public health crisis.

Palm Springs police Chief Bryan Reyes, president of ARCCOPS, said the county’s new mandate against self-investigating is another step toward increased police transparency and accountability in the county.

Reyes said the new policy applies to the most common law enforcement uses of force incidents that result in death or great bodily injury, including:

  • All officer-involved shootings, whether they result in injury or death;
  • Incidents where the use of force by law enforcement personnel results in death;
  • Incidents where the use of an electronic control device, like a Taser, or chemical agent results in great bodily injury;
  • Any other incident deemed worthy of investigation by thedepartment’s leader.

In addition to the resolution, the county supervisors have also convened listening sessions to allow for county residents to voice their concerns about policing, race and public health — the next session is scheduled for Oct. 24 and can be livestreamed at the county Board of Supervisors’ website.

The idea for the sessions came from the supervisors’ consideration of the resolution during the hearing, and a suggestion from Hestrin.

“What I proposed is a civilian review board made up of volunteers,” Hestrin said. “They would review uses of force and make potential suggestions for policy changes to the supervisors.” 

Details about how many people will be on the board or how they will be selected have not been released.

A civilian review board is something that police transparency advocates have long requested. 

Eva Bitran, staff attorney at ACLU Southern California, said that as reforms like the new use-of-force policy continue to progress, civilian oversight should be a priority.

“The interests of the public and law enforcement do not align when police investigate their own,” Bitran said. “What community partners in Riverside County have been calling for is an independent civilian review board with authority to investigate officer misconduct up to and including uses of force.”

Bitran said it was encouraging to hear that the advisory board will be developed, but added that there have been few public reports on its progress. Still, Bitran added, a more effective solution to local conflicts of interest would be to think outside the county. Local prosecutors, after all, work daily with local cops.

“In general, there’s a reluctance to use the criminal process against police officers,”  Bitran said. “We don’t know if the new policy will change that.”

Hestrin said he expects all the county’s departments will comply with the new policy. But should one decide they want to continue to do their own investigations, he would utilize a grand jury to subpoena testimony and indict if needed.

Departments assign who investigates

When a police officer’s use of force results in death or injury, two investigations are simultaneously triggered. The first determines whether the officer’s actions were lawful. The second determines whether the officer’s actions were in line with department protocol.

The new policy applies only to the criminal culpability of an officer who used force.

Police departments in Riverside, Murrieta, Corona and Hemet, for example, previously had their own detectivesconduct their department’s use-of-force investigations.

City of Riverside police Chief Larry Gonzalez said he is confident his department, as the largest municipal department in the county, was able to handle these investigations impartially. But with this new procedure, Gonzalez said, his department will allow an investigator from the district attorney’s office to take the lead while his investigators provide support.

This distinction about who is the primary investigator is an important one, Gonzalez said, because that person directs the investigative team and signs off on the final report.

Ultimately, the district attorney determines whether an officer’s use of force complies with the law. If it doesn’t then criminal charges are considered.

To Gonzalez, the change just makes sense in a moment when the public demands greater police transparency and accountability.

“I think it’s a move in the right direction for public perception,” he said. “And I think it shows a commitment to transparency from our county’s departments.”

Reyes said that the policy has been in development since the end of last year. 

“We should make every effort to ensure someone who comes into an investigation has a clean look and doesn’t know anybody in the room,” Reyes said.

And it was vetted by more than just department chiefs, but also the unions that represent police throughout the county.

Riverside County sheriff’s Lt. Tim Brause is the president of the Law Enforcement Management Unit, a union representing the department’s ranks of sergeant and above.

Brause said once the policy was developed by ARCCOPS, Hestrin met with the unions to discuss how it would impact their work.

“The entire plan is something that LEMU sees as a benefit to department members and the public,” said Brause.

One of the primary advantages of the new policy, Brause added, is that it will formalize the role each department plays in investigations.

“In the past, you’d have the sheriff’s department in partnership with the district attorney investigating any uses of force,” he said. “There had been no formal assignment of who, in fact, would be the lead on the investigation and who would be supporting the investigation.”

Investigations could cost thousands for local departments

Some cities contract with the sheriff’s department for police services, while others pay the sheriff’s department for specific services, such as the use of the department’s Cal-ID system, a database of fingerprints and other biometric records.

In recent years, some jurisdictions have struggled to afford the sheriff’s department’s asking rate for police services, while others, such as the city of Coachella, have resolved to save money by creating their own police departments.

Desert Hot Springs police Asst. Chief Steven Shaw said the sheriff’s department had been gracious in the past for offering its investigative services for free, but the new framework will likely cost municipal departments thousands of dollars for one incident. 

“There is not a set charge but the estimated cost for an (officer-involved shooting) investigation is $15,000-$30,000 depending on the complexity of the incident,” Shaw said.  

Regardless, Shaw said, his department is satisfied with the job the sheriff’s department has done for them in the past, and it will continue to work with the sheriff despite the new cost.

Cathedral City police Cmdr. Paul Herrera said his department will continue to work with the sheriff’s department, adding he was under the impression the cost of investigations by the new sheriff’s department task force would be linked to how often they are used.

Guitron, the Indio police spokesman, said his department has not been told what the sheriff’s department will charge for a use-of-force investigation. 

While all departments have agreed with the basic mandate of this new policy — that they will not investigate their own use-of-force incidents — it’s up to each department to figure out how it will comply.

Many department leaders said they are still in the process of working out these details. But their preliminary decisions appear to be based first on whether they did their own investigations previously, and then on what they can afford moving forward. 

Murrieta police Chief Sean Hadden said his department has elected to work with the district attorney’s office—which is what it had done from 1992 until 2008 when the recession caused staff layoffs there. Until July, his department had investigated its own use-of-force incidents and his staff will still serve as support.

Returning to work with the district attorney made sense for a lot of reasons, Hadden said, cost included. 

“Since both the D.A.’s office and the sheriff’s department have senior investigators and provide high-quality investigations, cost was a deciding factor,” Hadden said. 

Gonzalez, the city of Riverside’s police chief, said that the district attorney’s smaller workload related to officer shootings helped him decide on who to work with.

“Most of the D.A. investigators are very seasoned investigators that would not have the caseload that the sheriff’s department investigators have,” Gonzalez said. “This doesn’t mean that we will never use [the sheriff’s department] in the future, that could possibly occur.” 

California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Alvarez said that normally CHP would be asking the department that has jurisdiction over the area where the incident occurred to step in as lead investigator. If there was a problem with that policy, Alvarez said, they’d ask the district attorney to lead.

Other departments that said they have decided to work with the district attorney on shooting investigations include Hemet Police Department and Corona Police Department. 

Also, the departments are split geographically. All the departments from the county’s west side that responded to The Desert Sun’s inquiry have decided to work with the district attorney’s office.

The Coachella Valley’s departments and the Blythe Police Department said they are working with the sheriff’s department, with the exception of the Indio Police Department, which indicated things could change. 

Reyes said he hopes to contribute one of his investigators to the sheriff’s new Force Investigation Detail, but he is prevented from doing so because of a freeze on hiring and recent layoffs due to the pandemic’s impact on the city’s economy.

Contributing an investigator, Reyes said, means that the city would not be charged for investigations by the sheriff’s department. Until then, Reyes said, he’ll find a way to pay.

“All departments have to assess what they can do to comply,” Reyes said. “Either you get someone on the team or pay the cost. We all understood this was an important milestone to get to: we can’t investigate our own.”

From The Desert Sun