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5 things to know about changes to police use-of-force investigations in Riverside County

In an effort to avoid any conflicts of interest, Riverside County law enforcement agencies are no longer investigating serious use-of-force incidents by their own officers.

Instead, under a policy adopted by the Association of Riverside County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff that went into effect July 1, a team led by the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department is leading the probes into whether crimes were committed. Uses of force by sheriff’s deputies will be investigated by the DA’s Office.

Each agency will continue to conduct a review to determine whether the force was within that department’s policy. And the District Attorney’s Office will still separately review the evidence for possible criminal conduct.

But some people who try to keep police accountable for their actions say the change is the wrong approach.

Here are some answers to key questions about the policy.

How did this come about?

District Attorney Mike Hestrin said he pushed for the policy with strong support from Sheriff Chad Bianco.

“I think it’s a good change for the county,” Hestrin said. “It helps with transparency. It helps that the person being investigated and the person doing the investigating do not have the same boss.”

The state Attorney General’s Office said there were 59 serious uses of force reported by Riverside County law enforcement agencies in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. “Serious” is defined as incidents in which the force resulted in serious bodily injury or death or the discharge of a firearm.

What will this change mean for individual agencies?

For some, the policy will represent little change as many smaller departments already have outside agencies investigate uses of force. For instance, Beaumont Police Chief Sean Thuillez said his department has long had sheriff’s deputies investigate his department’s cases.

But the policy represents a change for large agencies such as the 380-officer Riverside Police Department.

Its detectives will now assist at the scenes, including interviewing witnesses other than the involved officers.

“It just adds that extra layer of transparency, and I think the public will appreciate it,”  Riverside Chief Larry Gonzalez said.

Does anyone have doubts about the policy?

A Riverside police watchdog organization supports the change but said more oversight is needed.

“We believe that this is a cynical and even desperate effort on the part of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to try to avoid independent civilian review,” said Deborah Wong, co-chair of the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability.

“The tide has shifted; public opinion is strongly focused on change, reform, oversight and defunding of law enforcement. The terrain has changed and local law enforcement knows ‘something’ must be done, but is now working hard to ward off civilian oversight by casting this new model as a form of independent investigation,” she said.

The civilian Riverside Community Police Review Commission, which investigates officer-involved deaths in that city, rules whether department policy was followed in uses of force but does not have the power to discipline, arrest or indict.

Jerry L. Steering, a Newport Beach attorney who for 34 years has represented clients in lawsuits against police in Southern California, said such prosections are far too rare.

“Anyone who thinks the DA is going to honestly investigate the police is a fool,” he said.

One of the problems, Steering said, is reluctance by juries to convict police. As a result, charges are rarely filed, he said. Steering said the solution is to effectively monitor officers with body-worn cameras whose video is stored in the cloud and inaccessible to police, and to establish an independent commission whose sole job is to investigate police.

Wong agreed on the need for an independent agency. She suggested an Inspector General or auditor supported by a civilian commission.

“The political will of the community is key: The community must remain involved and attentive for any oversight model to work,” she said.

Will the district attorney really be willing to prosecute officers?

Hestrin promised to “follow the evidence where it leads us” and file criminal charges when warranted.

He cited the murder charge filed against Oscar Rodriguez, a sheriff’s deputy arrested in 2018 after prosecutors say he gunned down a rival in a love triangle under the guise of serving an arrest warrant in Coachella in 2014. Rodriguez has filed a motion to dismiss the charges that will be heard Nov. 10.

Who decides which information is made public?

Departments whose officers initiate the force will still control what type of information — including body camera footage — is released to the public and when, Hestrin said.

Source: Orange County Register

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