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Local police agencies will no longer investigate their own officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths

San Diego Police vehicle

The new protocol was developed to ensure deadly force incidents are investigated more independently

Police leaders from across the county announced on Wednesday that local law enforcement agencies will no longer investigate their own police shootings or in-custody deaths — a significant change in protocol that is thought to be the first of its kind in the state.

Under the new guidelines, the San Diego Police Department will investigate all such incidents that involve sheriff’s deputies or officers from any other local law enforcement agency in the county. The Sheriff’s Department will investigate incidents involving San Diego officers. If both San Diego police officers and sheriff’s deputies are involved, the Chula Vista Police Department will take the lead in the investigation.

The new protocol comes at a time of heightened scrutiny for law enforcement agencies. Police reform advocates have repeatedly called for greater transparency in police investigations and new layers of independent oversight.

Law enforcement leaders said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that the latest guidelines were designed to ensure deadly-force incidents are investigated more independently and to bolster trust between community members and police departments.

“All law enforcement agencies in our region recognize the need for transparent and independent investigations of all peace officer-involved shootings and significant use of force,” said Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy. Kennedy is also president of the San Diego County Chiefs’ and Sheriff’s Association. “This is another example of how local law enforcement agencies are committed to ensuring unbiased investigations when there is an officer or deputy involved shooting.”

The guidelines apply to all in-custody deaths and deadly-force incidents where a peace officer fired a weapon, excluding gun discharges that are deemed unintentional or incidents related to training or the euthanization of an animal. Jail deaths that occur after the use of force by deputies or correctional officers would also be subject to this agreement.

Work on the change began about a year ago and involved investigators and leaders from all local law enforcement agencies, as well as representatives from the Deputy Sheriffs Association and a variety of police unions, authorities said.

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said when an incident occurs, the appropriate investigating agency will be notified and the scene will be secured until they arrive. Currently, a department’s own homicide team is called to investigate when officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths occur.

News releases about the incident will also be handled by the investigating agency, in coordination with the agency involved in the incident.

Investigating departments will still aim to get their investigations to the District Attorney’s Office within 90 days. The District Attorney reviews all officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths to determine whether the use of force was legally justified.

Departments will retain the ability to conduct their own investigations for administrative or civil litigation purposes.

Nisleit said the new measures are being put in place “to truly strength the relationship with the people we serve.”

“We must meet them at a place of trust and understanding,” he said.

Community members have long pushed back against law enforcement agencies investigating their own deadly incidents, arguing that the process is inherently biased. After Wednesday’s announcement, some said that the new protocol doesn’t provide the sort of independent oversight that communities have been calling for.

“It’s still officers investigating officers,” said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a long-time police reform advocate and executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance. “Our law enforcement agencies don’t have the public’s trust. That doesn’t go away when you trade one police department for another.

“The blue line doesn’t stop internally. It cuts across agencies.”

The new protocol will go into effect on May 1; however, officials said if a qualifying incident happens before then, it is likely to be enacted sooner.

Updates

2:54 p.m. April 14, 2022: This story was updated with additional information.


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