Sacramento County cops: Straight shooters

Independent review of police shootings scarce even before DA’s withdrawal

Can the police be its own watchdog? Or should someone outside the law-enforcement neighborhood be reviewing incidents where officers use force?

Can the police be its own watchdog? Or should someone outside the law-enforcement neighborhood be reviewing incidents where officers use force?

illustration by Priscilla Garcia

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The question translates to: “Who will watch the watchmen?” In Plato’s Republic—a super-old political treatise on the nature of justice—the philospher concludes that the watchmen will watch themselves. But, as protesters from UC Davis to Zuccotti Park can attest, oftentimes the only accountable scrutiny is the external kind.

Such is the dilemma here in Sacramento, where the county district attorney’s office ceased reviews of officer-involved shootings this past July, citing staff attrition and years of budget cuts. Now, most county law-enforcement agencies have been left to investigate in-house shootings without the public-appeasing benefit of independent oversight. (There are those who quibble that the county lacked independent oversight long before then, but more on that later.)

Meanwhile, a gestating proposal first reported in the Elk Grove Patch to replace DA oversight with a panel made up of the sheriff and local police chiefs has garnered early support from law enforcement and eye-rolling skepticism from critics.

Law-enforcement officials agree that external reviews of police shootings lend the investigations a crucial air of integrity, and that the DA’s withdrawal has created a vacuum local agencies are searching to fill.

“What is lost is independent oversight, an independent review of those cases,” said assistant district attorney Albert Locher, “and that is significant from the point of view of public perception and confidence.”

Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel has reportedly scheduled a meeting to ask District Attorney Jan Scully to resume such inquiries, according to Francine Tournour, director of the city’s office of public-safety accountability. But Locher told SN&R that, at least for now, “the decision stands.”

In the meantime, Sheriff Scott Jones has reached out to police chiefs across the county about forming their own review panel, said department spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos. The reasoning, Ramos says, is so that the department isn’t “just us looking at our own shootings.” But the plan’s details are still sketchy. Jones’ and the other chiefs’ level of involvement is one aspect left to be resolved, for instance.

As of now, it appears the panel of agency heads would act as “a secondary kind of sounding board,” according to Ramos, to ask questions and make recommendations once the initial officer-involved shooting investigation is complete.

That’s a more diluted oversight process than was provided by the DA’s office, which sent investigators to the crime scene for walkthroughs, and observed interviews and interrogations, according to officials.

Yet even with this increased level of involvement, the DA’s office only prosecuted two officer-involved shootings in more than 30 years, and neither targeted a local agency employee.

Attorney Stewart Katz, who often battles local agencies over police shootings, says neither review panel provides any real oversight. The DA’s office, he noted, had no problem with a January incident in which a suspected spousal abuser was shot in the face by an Elk Grove police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol vehicle.

Katz is representing the suspect, 32-year-old John Hesselbein, in a lawsuit against Elk Grove and its police department.

“To say the DA’s not doing it anymore, I say good,” Katz remarked. “They didn’t do anything, anyway.” A review panel made up of police chiefs would fare no better, he argued. “What’s the point of having these false rubber stamps?”

Some are bolder in their criticism. “The DA’s investigation usually just [resulted] in a cover-up,” said Cres Vellucci, a board member with the American Civil Liberties Union of Sacramento County.

Tournour defends the DA’s past investigations of police shootings, at least in the city of Sacramento. An Oakland native who was moved to go into law enforcement after “seeing police brutality firsthand,” Tournour says the criteria for finding wrongdoing in a police shooting is pretty high. “Officers are given a lot of latitude when it comes to using deadly force against someone.”

Such cases often come down to trying to figure out what was inside an officer’s head at the time he or she pulled the trigger. Such as the September 6 case of a Sacramento police officer who fatally shot Sean Edward Ogle, a reportedly disturbed 32-year-old who had been smashing windows with a baseball bat near Broadway and 24th Street. One witness contradicted officials’ account that Ogle advanced on the officer with the bat cocked when he was shot in the torso.

Unless there’s overwhelming external evidence proving the contrary, Tournour says it’s virtually impossible to disprove an officer’s statement that he or she feared for his or her personal safety or that of the public’s when he or she took deadly action. “They have so much room,” she said.

In its 2010 annual report, Tournour’s office noted an increase in the number of officer-involved shootings and violent attacks on police officers over the previous year, even as complaints of police misconduct dropped slightly. Four out of the five police shootings in the city that year were within policy and lawful, while another was still pending review, the OPSA report found.

Even Katz agrees most police shootings are probably justified. But without true independent review, he and Vellucci say the public is being failed.

The two men suggest alternative solutions, such as the citizen-staffed panels, common in Bay Area communities, or an empowered grand jury, which can level subpoenas and require testimony under oath.

“To me that would be real,” Katz said, adding that “it’s not a cheap proposition.”

But neither is a YouTube-fueled lawsuit.