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Monday, May 20 2013 11:00 PM

LOGAN CARTER: Why internal investigations don't just wrap up overnight

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    Logan Carter

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Law enforcement actions involving violence seem to have gripped this community. Some folks always dislike the police but most citizens want to understand why such matters take so long to investigate.

I served for 35 years on one of the largest sheriff's departments in the nation, investigating homicides, officer-involved shootings and other deaths involving law enforcement. I supervised the internal affairs division, rising to the rank of captain.

When someone uses violence, it is shocking. Add a badge to the mix and scrutiny understandably grows. Vietnam taught the military that the press has a right to battlefield access; however, such access must be controlled or citizens will turn against the war because violence is ugly on the 6 o'clock news. Violent police actions are like war when seen on videotape. Each makes you want to turn your head, even if the action is warranted.

When a person dies during a scuffle with cops, an investigation is triggered. The involved officers are isolated for interview and blood samples are drawn to make sure they haven't used legal or illegal drugs that may have impaired their judgment. Their firearms and any other involved weapons are taken for analysis. The officers' labor representative is contacted, as is their attorney. Yes, policemen have the right to counsel when facing a criminal investigation and potential prosecution.

Many readers will become confused with my next statement. Most officers refuse to cooperate with criminal investigators and remain silent. Before you become upset, cops do not walk away without making a full statement. Officers have the right to remain silent, but they don't have the right to continue being cops if they refuse to make a statement to internal affairs. I.A. will compel the officers to explain their actions and those of other officers at the scene. Should they refuse, they are often terminated. This statement cannot be used against them criminally, only to discern if they acted within department guidelines. Criminal investigators must rely on witness statements and the analysis of evidence. Officers are often placed on paid administrative leave until the matter has been fully investigated, especially in shooting incidents.

The deceased is taken to the coroner's office for autopsy. This procedure is done to determine the cause of the citizen's death. The autopsy shows bullet trajectories through the body or in the case of a blunt force incident, the subject's wounds are inspected to determine if the blows killed the citizen and, if so, which ones. This is where the collection of cellphone videos becomes vital. If the citizen died during the use of a nightstick, it is not enough to say the death resulted from a particular blow. It is important to discover which officer delivered the blow. The videos often contain this information.

There are certainly privacy issues attached to these seizures. Even television and radio stations, along with doctors and lawyers, can be subjected to such seizures; however, in such cases the court appoints a neutral third party known as a special master to view the contents and authorize the release of pertinent information while protecting private or uninvolved materials. At the very least, a search warrant issued by a judge must be used before the contents of the telephone may be viewed.

As you can see, the dynamics of such investigations are far-reaching. I have touched upon just a few of the investigative requirements when a death occurs during a police action. I hope you can see why these investigations can't be completed in two days or less. Just the toxicological results from the deceased and the involved officers may take many days to several weeks. The autopsy results even take an extended period of time.

Any rush to judgment most often leads to errors and oversights in an investigation. Evidence does not lie. If videotapes are tampered with, such deeds are easily discovered. The same holds true with other evidence.

No one wants unqualified or violent cops on the force. But we also do not want to dismiss those who are simply caught up in the media whirlwind created at the outset of such events.

Logan Carter retired from a career in law enforcement in 2010. He lives in Bakersfield with his wife and elderly mother. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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