Who should investigate when state troopers kill or injure someone?

Gary Harki
Spotlight PA
Pennsylvania State Police agreed to make changes or consider policy revisions based on a state oversight committee’s recommendations, but they did not give up the ability to investigate their own.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.Sign up for our free newsletters.

HARRISBURG — Independent investigations of deaths or injuries caused by Pennsylvania State Police would require a change to state law, the agency claims, rebuffing a recommendation by a state panel that would require an outside agency to investigate such cases.

The Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission called for the change in response to a 2016 incident in which state police shot a man in Beaver County after consulting with the local district attorney about whether the action would be legal. That same district attorney later ruled that the trooper’s actions were justified based on a state police investigation.

More:Four troopers injured when pursuit ends in crash

More:Prosecutors seek new appeal in quest to dismiss shooting case against ex-cop

More:Who investigates police killings in Pennsylvania, and why there are few checks and balances

State police said a legislative change would be needed to allow for external investigations. The current process ensures “every officer involved shooting or other serious police incident involving a member is thoroughly investigated, both criminally and administratively,” State Police Commissioner Robert Evanchick wrote to the commission.

Evanchick said that the Pennsylvania State Police is one of the few agencies in Pennsylvania that is fully accredited to handle use-of-force incidents and that it helms most investigations when another police department in the state shoots someone.

The advisory commission released its first three reports to the public in February, proposing eight changes to policies and practices, most of which the agency agreed to modify or consider.

Gov. Tom Wolf created the panel after the murder of George Floyd and authorized it to review incidents involving state-run police agencies after all criminal and civil cases are completed. The recommendations in the commission’s reports cover use of force, bias-based policing, and “critical incidents” where someone is killed or seriously injured.

Currently, if a trooper kills or injures someone, state police assign troopers from another jurisdiction to conduct an investigation.

Police accountability experts say there is an inherent conflict of interest when a department involved in a shooting determines whether charges should be filed.

State Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery, who has long pushed for more police oversight, submitted a bill in January that would require police to hand fatal use-of-force investigations to other agencies. While his bill would formalize that process, he also believes the Pennsylvania State Police could comply with the recommendation now.

“I’m not the lawyer for the PSP and they may have a legal analysis that’s consistent with their conclusion, but it’s not consistent with anything that I know,” he said.

Haywood’s bill would change how police killings are investigated in several ways. It would require police to send criminal investigations of fatal use-of-force incidents to a district attorney instead of taking the cases themselves. After an investigation is completed, the district attorney would release a report to the public and the state attorney general, who would review it further and potentially pursue prosecution.

State law currently prohibits the attorney general from investigating use-of-force incidents in nearly all cases unless a district attorney requests assistance.

Haywood said there’s been no word whether his bill will get a hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee. Bruce McLanahan, chief of staff for Law and Justice Committee Chair Mike Regan, R- Carroll Township, did not respond to requests for comment.

“We are working hard to get the district attorneys to support the legislation,” Haywood said. “I do think that the support of the district attorneys will go a long way to getting Law and Justice to advance the legislation.”

‘The context is completely stripped away’

The oversight committee’s public reports include general findings and proposed recommendations, but omit details about the 2016 Beaver County shooting and other cases that led to the recommendations.

The lack of context gives the public no perspective on what happened, said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who studies police accountability.

“This is not just odd. It’s not just a stylistic choice. … The context is completely stripped away, so a person reading this would have no idea why the recommendations were made, whether they were right or wrong, urgent or not,” he said. “The citizen reading this has no idea where it came from and how to evaluate PSP’s response.”

Jonathan Hendrickson, a spokesman for the Office of State Inspector General, said the narrative details were left out because they lie outside of the commission’s focus.

“The Commission is not designed to re-investigate or re-adjudicate an incident, but rather to review completed investigations and make policy and training recommendations to improve future policing practices,” he wrote in an email to Spotlight PA.

He also said leaving out case-specific details helps avoid accidental disclosure of information protected by state law.

Still, many of the details excluded from the public report have been shared in publicly available meeting notes without identifying the citizens or troopers involved.

An account of the 2016 Beaver County shooting, for instance, is included in the notes for an Aug. 31 subcommittee meeting.

Similarly, an Aug. 13 subcommittee meeting detailed how a trooper struck a juvenile in handcuffs after the juvenile insulted a trooper, a 2018 incident captured in a widely viewed video. In response, the commission’s report recommended that the state police amend its policies on use of force and the handling of juveniles, consider changes to its de-escalation policies, and continue to add patrol car and body cameras. The department said it would clarify wording in its use-of-force policy, update its policy on transporting juveniles and continue working through the state procurement process to purchase cameras.

On Aug. 25, a subcommittee reviewed a May 2016 incident in which a man claimed he was arrested because he was Black and driving an Infiniti. The man claimed police took more than $1,500 from him and threatened to hold him in jail over the weekend without seeing a judge if he mentioned anything about the money or said he was profiled. The man claimed that when police removed his handcuffs, he was “warned not to try anything because the last guy whose handcuffs were removed had to be killed,” according to the subcommittee meeting notes.

When the man filed a complaint with the agency, he claimed troopers told him they wouldn’t investigate the incident because he had charges pending against him in court.

Based on the case the commission recommended that PSP mandate full investigations of all bias-related complaints and that the agency make it clear that complaints can be filed once all charges have worked through the court system.

In response the agency said it would update its regulations on bias-based profiling and modify its notification letters to specify that complaints can be refiled once court proceedings are completed.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE... If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member ofSpotlight PA so someone else can in the future atspotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.