Editorial: Full reviews of shootings are essential

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

When it comes to trusting that police acted properly when they kill suspects or civilians, half measures won't cut it.

Sacramento County needs full and independent reviews of shootings by law enforcement officers – not the limited oversight District Attorney Jan Scully is resuming.

Blaming budget cuts, her office in July 2011 ended regular reviews of officer-involved shootings. DA investigators had gone to shooting scenes, interviewed witnesses and completed their own inquiries.

The change was soon followed by an unusual spate of shootings by Sacramento County sheriff's deputies – 13 during the first eight months of 2012. Eight suspects were killed.

Friday, Scully announced in a letter to Sheriff Scott Jones and the county's six police chiefs that her office will again look at shootings and in-custody deaths. It won't do its own investigations, however. Instead, it will rely on the law enforcement agency's own inquiry to determine whether a shooting is "lawful."

While her decision is a step forward, it isn't enough. Scully herself welcomed a recommendation from the Sacramento County grand jury, which called for the county Board of Supervisors to provide enough money for the independent and comprehensive analysis of officer-involved shootings, either by the district attorney, the county's inspector general, or both.

In its report Friday, the grand jury said supervisors should consider the value of such reviews, "both in financial terms and in giving the citizens of the county the confidence that deputy-involved shootings, especially those that result in the loss of life, are thoroughly investigated by an independent body without any appearance of a conflict of interest."

It would take about $500,000 a year to restore the full investigations, Scully's office told The Bee's editorial board on Monday. Supervisors have many demands for funding as they sort out a final 2013-14 budget in September, but there can't be many higher priorities than this one.

While the grand jury did not find a link between the end of the DA's reviews and the increase in shootings, it said the public perception of law enforcement accountability has been damaged. It also noted that some believe the presence of such reviews "was at least partially responsible for a decrease in such incidents in the several years preceding 2012."

As much as a full investigation is essential, so is robust training to ensure officers fire their weapons only when necessary.

The grand jury concluded that the Sheriff's Department needs to more routinely use "lessons learned" from real life shootings. Jones has already started a task force to look at incidents for those lessons.

The department beefed up its training starting in March 2012, with one important theme the difference between when deputies can legally use force – and when they should. It may be more than coincidence, the grand jury says, that deputy shootings have decreased since then. There were none from last September through April 15, when the report was written.

With proper training, shootings involving deputies should be rare. When they do happen, there must be independent reviews so the public really knows whether they were justified.

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