The Struggle for Accountability in Police Shootings


From left, plaintiff attorney Christopher Mears; Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas; Michael Gennaco, investigator for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review; and Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

After a string of police shootings in Anaheim earlier this year led to weeks of unrest in the city, several efforts were initiated to uncover the facts behind the shootings and, if necessary, hold the responsible officers accountable.

But if a Wednesday panel discussion on the issue — which included Orange County's district attorney, Anaheim’s mayor and Santa Ana’s former police chief, among others — is any indication, accountability in such shootings is an elusive goal.

Plaintiff attorney Christopher Mears went so far as to call the problem “a complete failure of accountability.”

The panel discussion, which took place at John Wayne Airport's Lyon Air Museum, included: District Attorney Tony Rackauckas; Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait; Santa Ana City Manager and former Police Chief Paul Walters; police training expert Greg Block; Huntington Beach Senior Deputy City Attorney Neal Moore; Michael Gennaco and Angelica Arias of the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review; Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr.; and Mears.

Tait said his latest move to increase accountability and restore public confidence in his city’s police department is to form an independent citizens review commission. But Santana argued that the power of such commissions to air the truth about these incidents was stripped after the California Supreme Court ruled in the Copley Press v. Superior Court case.

Open-government advocates had argued in favor of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper's request for access to transcripts and other documents relating to a San Diego Civil Service Commission hearing on the termination of a San Diego County sheriff's deputy. The Supreme Court decision went against the newspaper and, said advocates, effectively shut down civilian oversight in California.

Tait said that forming the commission,  the first of its kind in Orange County, is an important step toward greater accountability and giving the public confidence that a credible, independent review of the circumstances was carried out.

Mears pointed out that both criminal and civil litigation in police officer-involved shootings are inadequate methods of enforcing accountability.

Gennaco, who most recently reviewed the Kelly Thomas police beating case in Fullerton, talked about why it is such a difficult issue for prosecutors.

Police officers, he said, have permission and are even required to shoot in some situations. He said he has yet to see a case where an officer intended to use deadly force the day of shooting, making it virtually impossible to prove a criminal case against a police officer.

“Ironically, it’s easier to prove that case in a beating,” Gennaco said. After a 16th baton strike, the officer should know he is using excessive force, he said.

Moore, the Huntington Beach deputy city attorney, objected to these characterizations of the justice system. He said that litigation can lead to discovery of evidence and that a competent jury that can judge whether an officer is a guilty party in a police shooting.

“I have faith in our jury system,” Moore said.

In civil litigation, the police department rarely pays the price — and certainly not the police officer, some panelists said.

Walters, the former Santa Ana police chief, pointed to deep-seated issues in American society that produce violent criminals, pinning at least some of the blame for fatal police shootings on a culture of violence that festers in some American neighborhoods and reminding the panel that officers have a job that is fraught with danger.

“You have to ask yourselves the bigger question: What’s happening in our culture that police officers have to use deadly force?” Walters said.

Rackauckas, the district attorney added, “I think maybe we’re not giving credence to the violence police are facing.”

Walters also said that police departments don’t have the funds to offer the high-level training necessary to handle a wide range of potentially violent situations. But he also said that officers are subject to the most extreme scrutiny after police shootings.

But Walters also acknowledged that no officer in his department was fired while he was police chief.

Instead of accountability, the solution, Walters said, is implementing a concept called community policing, essentially having officers reach out to problematic neighborhoods. This human-to-human contact restores officers’ sense of normalcy, he said.

Aria, of office of independent review in Los Angeles County, said that fear of accountability can actually make the department’s practices worse, creating a camaraderie where officers are more ready to protect each other than help ferret out the truth during investigations of police shootings.

Aria’s point was that if officers feel more comfortable about being forthcoming with the facts about police shootings, that knowledge can be used to improve training in the police department and hopefully prevent similar incidents from recurring.

Mayor Tait summed up the conundrum: “You’ve got a job that I couldn’t do, wouldn’t do, and how do you judge someone that’s got to make a split-second decision about their life or their partner’s life?”

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