From Wisconsin to Georgia, police shooting investigations are changing

In the past three days, three unarmed black men in three cities were shot by police. In two out of three cases, the shootings will be examined by an outside investigator as jurisdictions try to instill greater accountability.

Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
Demonstrators gather at the State Capitol rotunda on Monday to protest the shooting of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisc. Robinson, 19, was fatally shot Friday night by a police officer who forced his way into an apartment after hearing a disturbance while responding to a call. Police say Robinson had attacked the officer.

The decision by police in DeKalb County, Ga., to hand an investigation into the officer-related shooting of an unarmed, and naked, black man to the state bureau of investigation is part of a dramatic re-think, amid continuing street protests, of how to adjudicate cases where unarmed civilians die at the hands of US police officers.

Dekalb County Police Chief Cedric Alexander tied the decision to investigate the death of Air Force veteran and aspiring R&B singer Anthony Hill to a broader movement toward having independent investigators handle officer-involved shootings, especially in cases where unarmed black men are killed.

The killing of Mr. Hill became the third shooting of an unarmed black man in a span of three days across America. The shootings in Aurora, Colo., Madison, Wisc., and Chamblee, Ga., have put police on guard against another wave of public backlash like the one that swept the US last year in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. 

Before leaving office after six years, Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to introduce changes that would lower the bar to make it easier to indict US police officers for civil rights violations.

But before any larger reforms are made in the continuum of acceptable and unacceptable police behavior, states and jurisdictions are already making dramatic changes in order to try to inject a sense of accountability into investigations that have become tainted by a sense among some Americans that police seem to have carte blanche, even in cases where unarmed people are killed.

“I don’t think there’s been a radical American change of opinion – I still think a majority of Americans still simply say that if the person didn’t resist the police, this wouldn’t have happened,” says Lewis Katz, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where police last year shot and killed a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice, who was carrying a toy airsoft gun. “But at the same time, I think the fact that there are people on the streets now who are saying, ‘Black lives matter,’ that’s why we’re beginning to see a change in the investigatory methodology. A lot of people aren’t going to walk away and simply accept the police version of events any longer.”

In Madison, an officer shot 19-year-old Tony Robinson in his own department Friday after a scuffle. The officer was reportedly injured before killing Mr. Robinson. 

The case, policing experts say, will be a test of a new state law in Wisconsin, the first one of its kind in the nation, which was implemented last year in the wake of a number of high-profile shootings. The law mandates that local police departments hand all investigations into officer-involved shootings to the state Division of Criminal Investigations.

"We are resolved that the result of the [Robinson] investigation will be one in which the public can have confidence," Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement.

The Wisconsin law has two tenets: One is to have an independent agency investigate officer-involved shootings, the other to have an outside prosecutor decide how to go forward. David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who is now a criminology professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, says such mandates can be effective to assuage public distrust, as long as they end up with the most competent people heading up the investigation.

“One problem is that some law enforcement entities will not be transparent, will not do a thorough investigation, and will jump to conclusions,” he says. “There will also be people that no matter what you do, they will never be satisfied, who will always have reason to be unreasonable.”

Given that dynamic,  Mr. Klinger adds, “The most important thing is that the investigation is thorough and reviewable, so that people get updates and once it’s over an announcement is made, and an abstract of the findings and conclusions are made public.”

In Aurora, Colo., a SWAT team engaged and then shot Naeschylus Vinzant, who had skipped parole and was wanted for a March 2 kidnapping, assault, domestic violence, and robbery incident. 

In that instance, the shooting is not being turned over to independent investigators. Aurora Police Chief Nicholas Metz promised that his department would carry out a thorough investigation. But he also made sure to address concerns about transparency. “We’re in a climate right now where our actions, police actions are going to be questioned to a much greater degree — whether it’s from the media or folks from the community,” he said at a press conference.

In Dekalb County, where Hill was killed on Monday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is already investigating another officer-involved shooting. In that instance, police last year shot and killed a 40-something African-American man named Kevin Davis after he called 911. The responding officer shot Mr. Davis’ three-legged pitbull after it attacked, and then shot Davis after he emerged holding a gun at his side, yelling at the officer for killing his dog.

After outgoing Attorney General Holder's comments to Politico that the current bar for civil rights charges against officers was too high, the Department of Justice subsequently said it would decline to prosecute former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Mr. Brown, because the evidence suggested Mr. Wilson was justified in using his weapons to stop a physical threat against him.

It’s a thorny issue, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged in handing officers' wide discretion in use of force. There's also widespread sentiment in the US that police officers do need special protections against prosecution since they are doing a dangerous, sometimes life-and-death job on the public’s behalf.

Research has shown that police officers in numerous jurisdictions disproportionately use force against black people. Yet correlating such findings with individual actions of police officers under stress is proving challenging.

Nevertheless, “there’s a difference between an honest mistake of the mind, where an officer thinks they’re doing the right thing and it turns out wrong, and times where we have misconduct, where officers engage [with bias] and make mistakes of the heart,” says Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Chiefs Association. 

[Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the type of toy gun Tamir Rice was carrying.]

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