The death of a reportedly depressed Elk Grove motorcycle club leader in raises a millennia-old question: Who watches the watchmen?
Local law enforcement agencies have been grappling with the question ever since the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office in July, citing budget cuts. The decision leaves only the police agency with jurisdiction over the scene of the crime to investigate whether a shooting was justified.
In the case of 68-year-old Richard Bisbee, who allegedly shot and wounded a California Highway Patrol officer during a traffic stop on Highway 99 before coming under fire from Elk Grove police and CHP officers, that responsibility fell to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. The department, which is tasked with investigating major crimes on county highways, did not have personnel involved in the incident.
But law enforcement officials and police watchdogs fear that’s not enough distance to ensure a fair investigation and assuage the public’s concern that cops protect their own. The sheriff’s department is seeking support from law enforcement agencies countywide to create a panel made up of the sheriff and police chiefs that would review officer-involved shootings.
“We recognize the need, as I’m sure most people do, for some sort of independent oversight,” said sheriff’s department spokesperson Deputy Jason Ramos.
Details of panel's work still unclear
Ramos said every police department the sheriff has reached out to has been receptive to the idea, but there are still many details to flesh out. For example, would the panel merely review the results of an officer-involved shooting investigation or have greater involvement during the course of the investigation, as the DA’s office did? That uncertainty has left the reluctant to commit to participating in the plan, yet.
“We’re all aware that there needs to be some sort of review, not just [by] the agency involved,” said Elk Grove police spokesperson Officer Chris Trim. But Trim said the effort was “still in the preliminary discussion phases. It’s almost like a wish list at this point.”
Civil liberties advocates, however, scoffed at the idea that a police panel could replace civilian oversight.
“That’s absurd actually. It’s like the fox guarding the hen house, as the old saying goes,” said Cres Vellucci, a board member with the American Civil Liberties Union of Sacramento County. “Really, an independent citizens’ review is what the ACLU calls for.”
The Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley all operate independent citizen panels with some level of oversight over officer-involved shootings, while the city of Sacramento conducts reviews through an ombudsman.
Elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, however, the Kern County Sheriff's Department and Bakersfield police have resisted calls for outside review of police shootings. The Fresno County District Attorney’s office ended routine investigations of police shootings in 2010.
The Sacramento County DA’s office cited loss of staff in making its decision to halt reviews this past summer. The office didn’t lay anyone off this fiscal year, however, after receiving a hefty civil settlement from an environmental protection lawsuit that was resolved in July, according to Assistant District Attorney Albert Locher.
DA's office prosecuted just two cases
The DA’s office had been reviewing officer-involved shootings in Sacramento County for at least 30 years, Locher said.
In that time, the office prosecuted only two cases. An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the accidental shooting death of a fellow agent in 1992. In 1988, a Folsom Prison correctional officer was acquitted in the non-fatal shooting of an inmate.
Some critics point to the low prosecution rate as evidence that the DA’s office simply served as a rubber stamp for police departments’ own internal investigations. Locher, however, called the reviews his office conducted “independent oversight…that is significant from the point of view of public perception and confidence.”
Local authorities acknowledge their effort to revive some sort of review process has as much to do with protecting peace officers as it does with holding them accountable.
“Let’s be honest, these are the things that end up in lawsuits,” Ramos said of officer-involved shootings.
That’s what happened after an Elk Grove police officer in January with a high-powered rifle while he was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. The suspect, 32-year-old John Hesselbein, over the incident.
The DA’s office investigated and the January shooting. Hesselbein’s attorney, Stewart Katz, did not return calls from Elk Grove Patch requesting comment.
Ramos said his agency hopes to finalize a plan for the review panel by the end of the year. The Nov. 13 shooting of Bisbee, he added, “reinforces the need to get this done.”