Prosecutors issue guidelines on police shooting probes
HARRISBURG — The group that represents Pennsylvania prosecutors issued guidelines Tuesday for investigating shootings by police officers, recommending that departments do not investigate their own and that the shooters’ names should not be released unless they are charged.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association outlined a set of best practices that include having the district attorneys themselves direct the investigation and have county detectives or a neighboring police department carry it out. In smaller counties, where the state police provide much of the law enforcement coverage, the district attorney can get troopers from another region to investigate, the association said.
Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan, who chairs the group that is developing best practices for state prosecutors, said other counties expressed interest after his own agency developed guidelines on officer-involved shootings several years ago.
“All of us learned, as we went through more police-involved shootings, what little things needed to be tweaked here and there,” Hogan said. “With the national situation, it became apparent that we should come up with guidelines that gave guidance to everybody.”
The recommendations apply whenever an officer shoots at someone, whether the target is hit or not.
The document describes how the shooting scene should be secured, firearms should not be moved and evidence such as body cameras and photographs should be collected and kept secure. It specifies that emergency medical treatment should be given to the injured, and if there is a dead body, it should be shielded from public view before being taken away.
If more than one officer is involved, they should avoid talking with each other before being questioned “as soon as reasonably possible,” considering the shock of the event and terms of police union contracts.
Police officials should treat shootings by their officers with “complete confidentiality,” the association concluded, and reporters’ calls should be directed to the district attorney’s office.
Prosecutors should release video of the shooting if the shooting has been deemed justified, so people can see for themselves why that determination was made, the guidelines say. If an officer might be charged or has been charged, prosecutors should not release the video, the association said, because it could “make it substantially more difficult to provide for a fair trial.”
“This follows the general rule that citizens who are not charged with a crime are not identified publicly,” the guidelines concluded.
The association did not provide any standards for how long an investigation should take, citing “factual and legal circumstances” and other conditions that can vary widely across Pennsylvania.
Hogan said district attorneys debated setting a timeline, but opted against it because it could take time to perform ballistics or DNA testing.
“All of us agreed that the timeline should be as fast as humanly possible while still making sure you cover absolutely everything,” he said.
Duquesne Law professor Wes Oliver said he was surprised the association did not suggest that an outside prosecutor be brought in, rather than the county district attorney who works with the local police all the time.
“How hard is that to graft in — ‘Hey, why don’t you get someone from the next county to come over and handle this case?’” Oliver said.
Oliver said another “missed opportunity” was the lack of any direction about what constitutes appropriate force by police. The document the district attorneys produced said only that state law and U.S. Supreme Court rulings would apply.