Commentary: Guidelines from DAs on police-involved shootings

Chester County District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan.

Prosecutors recognize the tension that has gripped our country regarding police-involved shootings affects everyone. The trauma is real, and so is the stress on families, communities, and law enforcement.

To address those challenges, assist law enforcement, and help the public better understand how these incidents are investigated, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) has drafted specific best practices to deal with police-involved shootings.

While Pennsylvania has not been without police-involved shootings, we, fortunately, have not had the kind of public unrest other communities have experienced in their wake. The credit goes to our well-trained members of law enforcement who are committed to service and professionalism, as well as the members of our communities who maintain strong lines of communication with law enforcement.

At the same time, we can't stick our collective heads in the sand and hope for the best. There is a compelling public interest in having clear, carefully considered, and transparent protocols in place to address the investigation of police-involved shootings. This may be among the most salient law-enforcement issues of this generation. These guidelines will help ease the highly charged nature of these events and set clear expectations of objectivity and fairness.

Holding true to the core values of American jurisprudence, the recommendations developed by PDAA's Best Practices Committee are aimed at getting to the truth and treating all those involved fairly. In drafting these guidelines, the committee consulted with law enforcement, community groups, and families of people involved in some of these shootings.

The key recommendation is having the shooting investigated by an independent agency, as opposed to the agency involved in the shooting. Investigations conducted by an agency not affiliated with the incident - for example, county detectives, the Pennsylvania State Police, or a neighboring jurisdiction - reassure the public that it was done without bias or direct connection to the officers involved. Utilizing an independent agency whenever possible is the surest and simplest way to remove any questions or negative perceptions about the integrity of the investigation.

Local district attorneys also need to be involved in the investigation, beginning at the scene and continuing through the entire investigation. District attorneys are accustomed to investigating and making charging decisions related to violent crimes in their communities every day. Their practical experience and professional responsibilities are vital components to the evidence-gathering and interviews that must take place during these events. The district attorney must make sure that the right questions are asked and answered, and that no stone is left unturned.

In the end, the prosecutor determines whether charges are filed. It is in the best interest of district attorneys to get it right because they are ultimately accountable, whether it is in a trial or to the public they serve.

In talking with families and members of the community, it also became clear that there are specific human needs that must be met on the scene. Any shooting is traumatic - and everyone involved must be treated with dignity and respect. Police officers never want to take a life. Therefore once a threat is neutralized, officers should render aid to any and all injured parties. If a person is deceased at the scene, the police should respectfully shield the body from public view.

On the scene, from hard-earned practice, district attorneys already are familiar with all of the steps they need to take: detailed evidentiary review and documentation, including the use of 3-D mapping; reviewing all possible video recordings of the incident, including police and civilian recordings; and the recovery and examination of all firearms or other weapons, including those belonging to the officers.

Public communication is important but also sensitive, given the ethical rules that govern prosecutors and the judicial process. In many cases, it is appropriate for the district attorney to provide a preliminary report on the status of the event after it happens, understanding that the ongoing investigation may uncover more evidence.

Once the full investigation has been completed, the district attorney should provide a detailed final report to the public, setting forth the facts and legal reasoning for the decision.

In making these recommendations, it is important to recognize that our commonwealth's 67 counties vary widely, including sparsely populated rural areas, suburban counties, and densely populated urban centers. Best practices are just that - practices that can be adopted in whole or in part. Many of our jurisdictions already use these guidelines, while others may need to customize them to fit the needs and resources of individual counties.

Consistent, however, is every prosecutor's belief that integrity is at the heart of a well-functioning criminal justice system and all of us involved in maintaining that integrity know that it requires constant evaluation and vigilance. We all deserve nothing less than full confidence in the process and the system.

David J. Arnold is president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) and and Lebanon County district attorney. darnold@lebcnty.org

Thomas P. Hogan is chair of the PDAA Best Practices Committee and Chester County district attorney. thogan@chesco.org

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