The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office will send assistant district attorneys to the scenes of police-involved shootings and later release investigative files even if an officer is not charged, officials announced Thursday.
The new policies were among several concerning police-involved shootings unveiled by District Attorney Seth Williams. He said at a news conference that the goal was to increase transparency when officers shoot people, in an effort to "build the public's trust."
"It is so important that there be a clear, transparent, and accountable process that reviews every police-involved shooting," Williams said. "There have to be clear standards for the review. And it must include the community."
Cities including Boston and Denver have implemented similar policies, but many prosecutors' offices have been criticized after recent police shootings for lacking openness when deciding whether to file charges.
A similar issue has roiled the Pennsylvania legislature. Civil rights advocates on Thursday asked Gov. Wolf to veto a bill passed this month that would prohibit public officials from swiftly releasing the names of police officers who shoot someone while on the job.
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the bill is "essentially backlash" against demands for police accountability and transparency. Wolf said he would consider the bill only when it reaches his desk.
In Philadelphia, a cadre of officials and community leaders at the news conference lauded Williams for his decision.
"Transparency will definitely make this a more trustworthy process," said Kevin Harden Jr., president of the Barristers' Association of Philadelphia.
But the city's police union was not impressed.
John McGrody, vice president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said the union "does not believe that the DA's Office should be involved in this, other than looking at prosecutions."
"The people who currently [investigate] are some of the biggest pros in the nation," said McGrody, who was not at the news conference.
The Philadelphia Police Department's Internal Affairs Division investigates when officers shoot people, and the District Attorney's Office reviews to determine whether charges should be filed.
Under the new guidelines, Williams said, assistant district attorneys under the direction of one of Williams' top deputies, Tariq El-Shabazz, will be dispatched to the crime scene after an officer opens fire.
As the Police Department investigates, Williams said, El-Shabazz and the assigned prosecutors will monitor progress and may ask for additional steps to be taken, or offer legal advice for building a stronger case.
In another new step, Williams said that soon after a shooting, he personally will visit a victim's family to explain the investigative process. When the office decides whether to press charges, he again will visit the family and tell it about the conclusion before it is publicly announced.
Even if the officer is not charged, Williams said, his office will release its investigative file to the family, family attorneys, and the public 60 days after the investigation is completed - also a new step.
Sensitive information will be redacted from the files, Williams said. Although he did not specify whether the office would release photos or videos, he said prosecutors would disclose "everything that we can within the law."
Prosecutors in Boston began publicly releasing files for police-involved shootings in 2004, said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. The motivation was to increase transparency.
"A thorough investigation will establish the facts," Wark said, "but we can help the public understand those facts by releasing all our supporting evidence."
In Denver, if prosecutors decline to file criminal charges after a police shooting, the district attorney sends a letter to city officials and the media, and also makes the case file available for an in-person review.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said that Williams had briefed him on the plan before the announcement and that "there was nothing that surprised me in it."
The department is considering new approaches to investigate police-involved shootings as it continues implementing federally recommended reforms for its policies on deadly force. Former Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey had proposed having state police take over investigations, but that plan fell apart over collective- bargaining and logistical issues.
Williams stressed that however police investigate such shootings, prosecutors would independently evaluate the investigation in deciding whether to charge.
"We do not wish to abdicate this responsibility," he said. "We have to do it right."