The Fresno County District Attorney's Office has decided to end a long-standing practice of probing all Fresno Police Department officer-involved shootings -- leaving the city's new police auditor as the only check on internal investigations.
Elizabeth Egan said her department, crippled by the budget crisis, can no longer afford to routinely investigate incidents in which Fresno police officers wound or kill a civilian.
"It's not that [DA investigations] are not useful -- I believe they are useful," Egan said. But "I've cut down on everything that is not core business."
Egan made the announcement in an interview with The Bee last week as her office and Fresno police worked to answer questions from the newspaper about why at least 30 shooting investigations dating back to 2004 have, according to police, fallen into limbo after being forwarded to the district attorney for review.
Egan said she told city officials about the decision in February. But city officials said it was news to them.
Egan said she has authority to unilaterally break a nearly 30-year-old agreement with the city.
The arrangement, which is common around the state, required the District Attorney's Office to investigate shootings of civilians and issue a letter stating whether the shooting was justified.
Egan said her office will finish up the outstanding cases -- though her office and Fresno police disagree over the number and status of those cases.
After that, prosecutors will only investigate Fresno officer-involved shootings in which it appears highly likely that the shooting was unjustified and that the officer could be charged with criminal conduct -- something that has not occurred in years.
Pete Chavez, Egan's chief of investigations, said he will now speak by phone with Fresno police officers at the shooting scene. If the police officers see no reason for the DA's Office to respond, Chavez said, then he probably won't send his investigators.
Public trust affected
Some worry about Egan's decision, saying public trust in the Fresno Police Department could be weakened if all shootings in which civilians are hit aren't reviewed by an independent reviewer with subpoena power.
Among them is Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer. The chief said he knew Egan was considering such a change, but has asked her to make two exceptions: shootings that result in a fatality and those that are of high public interest or potential controversy.
Dyer acknowledged that perhaps all Fresno officer-involved shootings fall into one of these categories. He wants Egan to continue investigating Fresno officer-involved shootings because public trust is fragile yet vital to his department's effectiveness.
"I just believe that the oversight provided by the District Attorney's Office is critical for any law enforcement agency because of today's environment," Dyer said. "There is incredible suspicion and skepticism of government and of law enforcement. Even with the district attorney's oversight, there is still a feeling out there amongst many that there is collusion between the two" agencies.
An advocate for close scrutiny of police shootings also was critical of the DA's decision.
Ellie Bluestein, a member of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee, said she wants Fresno officer-involved shootings reviewed by an independent agency with subpoena power. The District Attorney's Office "is not a disinterested party" in the shootings' investigation, she said, but it's better than having the review begin and end with the police themselves.
Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.