The next time a San Francisco police officer shoots somebody, the San Francisco District Attorney — not the police — will lead the investigation.
That means the San Francisco Police Department will no longer be criminally investigating its own officers following serious or deadly police shootings and/or an in-custody death. The shift is meant to promote greater independence during an investigation and increase “accountability over law enforcement,” according to the DA’s office.
“The community is less likely to believe the results of an investigation performed by the agency involved in the shooting,” said Max Szabo, a spokesman for the DA’s office. “Maintaining independence in these investigations is essential to enhancing community trust in law enforcement.”
Under the new arrangement, the DA must also “endeavor” to wrap up investigations of police shootings in six months. The prosecutor’s office has previously taken years to complete its investigations and make charging decisions, and it’s unclear if the new arrangement will make the process move quicker.
The DA’s office has never opted to charge an officer following a deadly police shooting. It’s uncertain whether the new setup will alter the determination of how officers are criminally charged for such incidents.
There have been no police shootings in San Francisco since June 9, 2018, when an officer shot an armed man, injuring him, as he ran down a crowded sidewalk.
An agreement between the police department and the prosecutor’s office was signed in early April and went into effect May 4. This finalized two-year pact was formalized after prolonged negotiations with the San Francisco Police Officers Association. The union was initially not thrilled about the DA becoming the chief investigator of its members.
Specifically, the DA’s Independent Investigations Bureau, which received $2.7 million this year to investigate police shootings, will have control over interviews and assessing the evidence.
The unit is currently staffed with six investigators, six prosecutors and two support staffers, according to Szabo.
The bureau was initially established in 2016 by the late Mayor Ed Lee.
Under the old setup, the DA took an ancillary role in investigating police shootings. The SFPD’s homicide detail was responsible for collecting evidence and conducting interviews. Homicide was the primary investigator in five concurrent investigations that also included the SFPD’s Internal Affairs division and three outside organizations: the Department of Police Accountability, the Medical Examiner, and the District Attorney.
The SFPD will still have a high degree of access to the crime scene, as it will collect physical evidence on behalf of the DA’s office and investigate the “underlying criminal activity” that may have preceded the shooting or deadly event.
At last week’s Police Commission meeting, Commissioner Petra DeJesus took issue with the fact that the agencies should only “endeavor” to complete investigations in six months. “It doesn’t even say it should be done in six months,” DeJesus said. “When it comes to public trust, people are waiting to see if there is a resolution. That is a long time.”
Chief Bill Scott argued that cases are complex by nature. “Some of these cases can be done in six months, and quite frankly, there are some that are more complicated,” he said.
Gascon took two and-a-half years to make a charging decision in the case of Mario Woods, whom five police officers shot and killed in the Bayview in 2015. Gascon took just under two years to announce the conclusion of his investigations into the shooting of Luis Gongora Pat, a homeless immigrant who was shot and killed in the Mission by two police officers after reports he was allegedly wielding a large knife.
Gascon declined to file charges in both cases, arguing repeatedly that the law would not allow him to convict those officers beyond a reasonable doubt.
That legal standard — determined by the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor — allows officers to use deadly force when an officer “reasonably” believes a person could harm that officer or another person.
The standard may soon change in California. In May, the state Assembly unanimously advanced Assembly Bill 392 to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. It would allow officers to use deadly force only when “necessary.” This could make it less complicated to prosecute officers who were found to have used excessive deadly force.
Gascon, who will not run for re-election supports the potential law, as do most of the candidates for San Francisco DA who’d succeed him.