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Investigating Officers: How SDPD investigates its own after an officer-Involved shooting

Posted at 2:04 PM, Nov 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-14 21:20:48-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- For decades internal documents about officers' use of force were limited to just law enforcement.

A new California law changed that, and now some of the most private materials are being released to the public.

Documents released by the San Diego Police Department show how incidents are investigated and what type of evidence is collected before use of force cases are submitted to the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.

10News asked the department to analyze a case to help the public understand how a report is created. An internal affairs captain also explains how the public getting access to internal documents is helping bridge the gap between the department and the people it serves.

2016 Officer-Involved Shooting

In November 2016, Juan Carlos Fernandez shot four people, killing two in the 3800 block of Marlborough Avenue. Police shot and killed Fernandez after officers repeatedly ordered him to lay on the ground, but he refused and continued pointing the handgun at a female, according to police.

A 2016 San Diego Police Department press release stated, "An officer, fearing for his life and the safety of the female, fired one round from his service weapon. The round struck the suspect, knocking him to the ground. The suspect was pronounced deceased at the scene by paramedics."

The San Diego County District Attorney's Office cleared the officer in the shooting.

Under a new California law, Senate Bill 1421, the investigative file and supporting audio and video documents were released to 10News through a public records act request.

10News asked the department to talk about what goes into an investigative case file and how the department investigates its own after an officer-Involved shooting.

Case Deconstruction

"The initial examination is going to be from a criminal standpoint, and the homicide unit is going to roll out there, and they are going to start their investigation," said Internal Affairs Captain Wes Morris.

Part of the homicide investigation includes an initial walkthrough at the scene.

Using the documents released to Team 10, an initial audio walkthrough of the 2016 shooting identified 15 law enforcement officials, including the officer involved in the shooting, a representative from the San Diego County District Attorney's office, and a member of the Internal Affairs Department.

"You can get very accurate information right away, and you can start to get a feel for what actually occurred," Morris told 10News.

Morris said the homicide team would speak with anyone who was at the location of the shooting, anyone who could have been at the location, and/or anyone who was close to the location and knew anyone involved.

All the evidence collected goes into what's called an Officer-Involved Shooting Report.

Using the 2016 case as an example, the department report totaled 612 pages.

While some of the information was redacted, the report contained sub-reports including: forensic biology report, chain of custody report, firearms lab report, crime scene lab report, vehicle report, witness statement, officer interview, death in custody report, property report, DNA sample report and a report with 586 pages of photos.

The San Diego Police Department also released more than 100 audio and video recordings of 911 calls, radio traffic, witness interviews, officer interviews, and body-worn camera.

"It's not a rubber stamp," Morris said. "There's a lot of work that goes into it. People that really do want to find the truth of what happened in these types of incidents."

The report is turned over to the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.

According to the DA's website, "The police agency with jurisdiction over the location of the shooting or death conducts the primary investigation of the incident. After the police agency completes their investigation, the District Attorney's Office reviews it, which it does for all officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths in San Diego County. If the District Attorney wants additional information to supplement the investigation, a request can be made to the jurisdictional agency to obtain the information, or the District Attorney's Office can conduct the additional investigation. The District Attorney's Office does not do a separate, new investigation of the incident."

The District Attorney's Office states that when a review is completed, "If the District Attorney's Office determines there is criminal liability, charges will be filed against the officer or deputy. If there is no criminal liability, a letter is written summarizing the facts, evidence, and available statements of those involved. The letter is delivered to the Chief of Police or Sheriff of the jurisdictional agency indicating the actions of the officer or deputy was legally justified. The letter is also posted on the DA's website where any member of the public can read it."

If there are no criminal charges pending, internal affairs will take the criminal investigation and do their investigation.

Internal Affairs

"With an officer-involved shooting, the most important thing we're looking at was if that use of force was within our policy," Morris said.

He explained when the case gets to internal affairs, it is assigned to a detective sergeant. The detective sergeant will review the entire case, looking at whether the lethal use of force was within the department's policy and if the officer followed the proper procedures.

"There are times where we will bring that officer back in again and interview them," Morris said. "We narrowly focus it to what we're looking at, but we may interview them on something that we've seen or some sort of policy and procedure concern, or it could be something outside of that particular use of force."

Morris said once the detective sergeant's investigation is complete, it will be put through a review process in-house. The completed investigation will be submitted to the Community Review Board on Police Practices (CRB).

"Their main task is to make sure that we haven't left any stone unturned and that we've looked at every aspect of the investigation and that our investigation is thorough, complete, and impartial," Morris said.

Once the CRB's review is complete, the investigation comes back to the department. At that point, the department will decide on discipline or no discipline from a policy and procedure standpoint.

Morris said the report is then given to the subject officer's commanding officer.

He said the commanding officer will conduct a review, one that's more from a training and tactics standpoint, and prepare a separate report that will be presented to the department's shooting review board.

"The citizens expect us to hold ourselves accountable," Morris said. "They expect the department and every officer to do the best job that they possibly can, and how we maintain that is through accountability."

It's important to note that last week the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to begin meeting with the San Diego Police Officers Association, a key legal step along the path to a November ballot proposal to create a police oversight commission in San Diego.

A group called Women Occupy San Diego has been pushing for years to change the city's current Community Review Board on Police Practices, which a 2018 Grand Jury report concluded lacked oversight. That Grand Jury report noted the community review board does not have subpoena power and that San Diego police personnel can sit in on what are supposed to be closed-door deliberations.

The proposed independent commission would investigate all deaths occurring while a person is in police custody, all deaths resulting from interactions with a San Diego police officer, and all officer-related shootings. It would have subpoena power and its own legal representation.

Outside Look

"There's a lot of information that we can start delving into because of this law, the 1421, and I think out of that is going to be good information," said Barry Pollard Chair of the Citizens Advisory Board on Police-Community Relations (CAB). "I think it's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, in all arenas, but that's a good thing and I think that if we use the data as a method of learning and not of defending, I think that everyone will certainly benefit from it."

The Citizens Advisory Board is a method of community participation in recommending and reviewing policies, practices, and programs designed to make law enforcement sensitive, effective, and responsive to the needs of the City.

Pollard says releasing the documents to the public is a good start to transparency, but believes public trust goes beyond documents.

"The CAB has 30 recommendations that we're waiting on a response for, and it is addressing employment, training, racial profiling. A lot of our recommendations involved more control from a division standpoint," he said.

The San Diego Police Department told 10News they will be addressing the recommendations at a public meeting later this month.

10News asked San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery about her thoughts on the newly released internal police documents.

In a statement, she wrote, "I am pleased that local law enforcement agencies are complying with SB 1421. This is a huge win for transparency and accountability as records are being released relating to police use of force and misconduct. This is a step in the right direction for helping to rebuild trust between our law enforcement officers and our communities of concern."