Pro/Con: Can police best police themselves?

Bianca Montes By Bianca Montes

June 28, 2015 at 10:21 p.m.
Updated June 29, 2015 at 6 a.m.

With a string of alleged police-involved improprieties flooding news headlines, questions about whether departments can objectively investigate one of their own are being raised.

Harsh criticism of a police-involved shooting in Wisconsin led to the state's governor signing a bill into law in April requiring deaths in police custody to be investigated by outside organizations - a first in the nation.

Victoria has recently seen several cases of officers facing criminal investigations. In these cases, officials have relied upon the Texas Rangers to lead the investigation

But, they didn't have to.

Should there be a law that governs whether a law enforcement agency can investigate its own employees?

PRO: Police qualified to investigate their own

Some investigations into alleged criminal activity don't naturally lend themselves to a hand-off from one agency to another, Victoria police chief J.J. Craig said.

"In some cases when there is some immediate evidence that needs to be collected, you're not going to stop what you're doing, call DPS and wait for them to run the investigation," he said.

In April, two Victoria officers fatally shot a man they said was holding a 23-inch machete. Instead of asking the Texas Rangers to lead an independent investigation, the department chose to handle it internally.

Craig said timeliness in preserving the crime scene was the reason.

The same reasoning was used when the police department chose to investigate two other employees for driving while intoxicated.

"Something that is happening right now doesn't lend itself to being handed off," Craig said. "I do think some agencies fall into (letting the Rangers investigate) because they don't have that level of criminal subject matter expertise, so they need additional assistance."

Craig said because the police department has the expertise of both investigators and detectives who work a variety of crimes, he doesn't really see a negative in handling investigations internally.

"I believe there would be a perception from some aspects of the community that you can't be objective - I have never felt that is the case here," he said. "Our investigators are extremely professional. When they get a case, they are going to investigate it to the best of their abilities."

Craig said he doesn't think it is necessary for a law to regulate who handles investigations involving law enforcement officers.

"I just foresee that to be extremely cumbersome should that ever be the case," he said. "In my opinion, it would lengthen every investigation so you wouldn't have the ability to do a full open transparent investigation should you add another layer to the process."

Kevin Lawrence, Texas Municipal Police Association director, said he also doesn't agree there should be a law preventing a department from investigating its own.

But he doesn't think they should be able to exclude another agency from investigating, either.

"You can be objective when investigating your own. I think we do a much better job than the general public gives us credit for," he said. "There is no doubt that there are times when you might have a smaller department where you have a chief or a sheriff that might try to cover for their own, but they have zero ability from preventing an outside agency from coming in."

In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a controversial bill into law that gave the Texas Department of Public Safety responsibility for investigating public corruption.

The law states that the Rangers can investigate any offense committed on or after Sept. 1. The new law moves responsibility for investigating out of the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney's Office.

Con: Public perception plays role in investigations

Regardless of whether a law enforcement agency can objectively investigate one of its own, public perception can and will affect the outcome of the case.

Every law enforcement official interviewed agreed public perception is an area of concern.

Lawyer and former district attorney George Filley said the public's doubts in their local law enforcement properly handling an investigation has the ability to affect that case when it is tried.

Some members of the public always have the perception that law enforcement investigators cannot be objective when it comes to one of their own, he said.

"But it doesn't necessarily make it so," he said. "You want to be very careful you don't make a decision based strictly for public perception."

In order to combat that perception, Filley said law enforcement officials need to document how they preserved and protected the evidence.

"It is very important to be able to show the integrity of the investigation has not been compromised," he said.

Samantha Jones, 29, of Victoria, said because of bias - perceived or real - there is no 100 percent truth or honesty behind an investigation by an agency that employs the person being investigated.

Beyond being co-workers, she said, the investigator and the officer being investigated could have some sort of emotional connection because they work in a field where they rely on each other and support each other.

"Having someone come in that knows no one from that department would be a more honest evaluation," she said. "Then there would be no question of any type of favortism."

Zora Mowles, 40, of Edna, said law enforcement officers band together like family, which she said is a great thing for a working environment.

"If one of their own happens to be under investigation, I do not believe they can do a thorough investigation," she said.

Mowles said in smaller cities like Victoria and Edna - where everyone in the department knows one another - there is no way to be objective.

"That fellow officer is like family," she said.

Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig said his department takes criminal allegations against its officers very seriously.

When it comes to felony-type allegations that will be complex, he said, he prefers an outside agency, such as the Texas Rangers, to investigate.

Craig said the benefit to an outside agency is that they come in with a fresh set of eyes.

"You have other subject matter experts that are looking at it from a different agency, who are not held to our standard in terms of how they would report or collect the evidence, or report the case itself. I think that would be a perceived benefit," he said.

Online presentation and Timeline by Jake Harris; Context cards by Vox Media.



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