Independent review needed

Outside agencies should investigate cases of officer-involved shootings

The recent shooting death of a teenager by Chico Police Department officers should trigger further consideration of how local law-enforcement officials respond to vehicle thefts and also how officer-involved shootings are investigated.

We cannot think of a single case in which Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and the multiagency Critical Incident Protocol Team he leads have determined an officer-involved shooting death unjustified. That would mean that local police departments and the sheriff’s office have flawless records when it comes to using lethal force.

Ramsey, who has been the top lawman in the county for about 25 years, is an elected official, but that doesn’t mean the local law-enforcement agencies that report to him don’t hold influence. The police departments, in particular, have unions with a lot of members and community support.

One answer to resolve this conflict of interest—whether real or perceived—is to bring in members of outside agencies to conduct investigations. That protocol is being considered in Wisconsin by a Republican state representative—Garey Bies—who, concerned by three officer-involved deaths in the state, is sponsoring a bill with a number of key points to address any conflicts.

The bill would, for example, set up a three-person team of investigators (two of whom do not work for the agency associated with the death). Additionally, it would establish a five-person review board whose members—composed of a retired or reserve judge, various law-enforcement personnel, a former DA, and a criminal-justice professor—would be appointed by the attorney general.

Bies’ effort is a smart one. After all, the public’s trust is at stake.

Our local legislators should take a page from his book and introduce similar legislation in California. This would do a lot to quell concerns about excessive force. Officers who follow proper protocol and have nothing to hide should have no concerns about an outside agency vetting cases of lethal force.

We would recommend outside review of the fatal shooting of Breanne Sharpe, the Magalia teen who died at the hands of a Chico Police officer on Sept. 22 after stealing a car and leading the police on a chase.

Ramsey’s review of her death left a couple of questions in our minds. First, we wonder if the officer who fired the fatal shot had put himself in a dangerous position. Second, we cannot reconcile how Sharpe was shot in the head and immediately incapacitated while heading in reverse with how the car she was driving was moving forward when it finally came to a stop. In other words, we question the assertion that she was attempting to run over police officers, and rather wonder whether she had backed up and then quickly gone into drive to evade arrest.

What’s also noteworthy is that, all together, the officers at the scene fired off 19 rounds in a residential area. Two of them struck Sharpe. Thirteen hit the car she was driving. The other four stray shots hit a number of things, including a bus stop and a garage. Thankfully, they didn’t strike someone in the nearby apartment complex, or passersby.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Chico police had simply stopped their pursuit. It’s unlikely—considering the incident occurred at 2 a.m.—that Sharpe would have injured other motorists. It stands to reason that her joyride very likely would have ended without anyone being hurt.

As it stands, one life is lost, a family is devastated, and a member of our local law-enforcement agency will for the rest of his days carry the burden of taking a life—a young life. If that outcome doesn’t call for some careful consideration, we don’t know what does.