In a break with past policy, St. Paul police will refer all future officer-involved shootings to independent investigators in a bid to strengthen public trust and align themselves with federal recommendations.
The department announced Monday that beginning this month, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) or the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office will investigate when someone is seriously hurt or killed during an encounter with St. Paul police.
"Our priorities are to safeguard the integrity of the investigation, protect the rights of everyone involved and ensure that the public trusts its police department," St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said in a statement.
In Minneapolis, Police Chief Janeé Harteau said Monday she has asked the BCA to investigate all fatal officer-involved shootings since 2013. There's only been one since then — the high-profile November shooting of Jamar Clark in north Minneapolis. An initial attempt by Harteau to adopt the new policy stalled after resistance from her police union and Gov. Mark Dayton. However, it still became standard operating procedure. Referral on nonfatal shootings is decided on a case-by-case basis, police spokesman Scott Seroka said.
The departments historically have conducted those investigations in-house, choosing to outsource some incidents on a case-by-case basis. But a wave of national and local criticism about police use of force has forced departments here and across the country to rethink how they function.
"While I have full confidence in the investigative teams in our department, I also share the community's desire for independent investigations," Harteau said in a written statement issued Monday.
The moves will sync the departments with recommendations issued last year by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
"Police work evolves not just from a technological standpoint, but from a community policing model," said St. Paul Assistant Chief Bill Martinez. "Basically, the community's asking us for a little more transparency."
Most departments across Minnesota call on the BCA to step in when their officers hurt or kill a civilian. Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson said that practice predates his 34 years with the department.
Rochester police are instructed to "freeze" a scene until BCA investigators arrive. Officers can relay basic facts to the BCA investigators (when and where an incident occurred, for example), but are not allowed to interview any witnesses or suspects.
"It's the best practice given the current state of the law and our current availability of resources," Peterson said.
The BCA investigates most officer-involved shootings in the state. BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said the agency investigated 64 such cases between 2009 and 2014.
The investigations don't cost anything for the departments involved.
Taking on St. Paul's cases won't affect the BCA's ability to handle its caseload, Oliveira said.
Martinez said he didn't expect the turnaround time for investigations to change much.
"Whether it's us doing it or the BCA doing it, you can't expedite certain things," he said. "Homicide investigations are very detailed and very systematic."
St. Paul police will work with the investigative agency to share information with the public while the inquiry is pending, Martinez said. Exactly how that will play out is unclear. Minnesota law gives the investigative agency the authority to withhold or divulge information in a pending case.
Oliveira said the BCA will release "incident and investigative information when appropriate under state law."
Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, said the change will help rebuild public trust.
"I think it's a good first step," Martin said. "It'll also take a lot of pressure off the department in these critical times, because no matter what decision they make internally, it's going to be second-guessed by the public. [The change] adds to the credibility of the investigation."
However, Martin cautioned, there is still a degree of coziness between local authorities.
"It's a very small law enforcement community in Minnesota," he said. "These guys are still going to golf together, fish together … go to the same conferences together."
The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a component of the U.S. Department of Justice that's supporting the implementation of the president's task force recommendations, said it's unclear how many police departments nationwide investigate critical incidents in-house instead of outsourcing them.