Former DA Susan Reed discusses officer-involved shooting investigations
Reed's office investigated all 46 shootings that occurred in last 4 years
SAN ANTONIO – As part of our in-depth look into officer-involved shootings in San Antonio former Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed sat down with Cory Smith to answer questions about how her office handled the 46 officer involved shootings between 2010-2014.
CS: You see thousands of criminal cases come across your desk. In that moment when you realize it's an officer's case that's sitting on your desk, does anything change in your mind in how you view that case?
SR: No, the analysis has to be the same, but you want to be certainly very careful, because you understand that there is a public perception. There is a looking at the case and you want to be sure that you investigate everything thoroughly is what you really want to do.
CS: Walk us through the process. When do you get the case? What happens from there?
SR: In Bexar County we did not have a shooting team that went to the scene. Different jurisdictions handle it differently. Houston for instance will send a assistant DA to a scene as it's happening That requires 24-7 on call people and we didn't have that. But what would happen is the police would inform us of the shooting. Most of the time we already knew about it because we'd seen it on the news, but we would initially get an update from them. Then they put they investigation together. The police separate their investigation. There's internal affairs that deals with the policy issues and were the protocols followed correctly, and then you've got a homicide division which has a special police officer involved shooting team, which is led by a lieutenant, sergeant, police officers. It's a fairly large team and they do the investigation to determine is there a criminal aspect to the conduct of the officer and what happened at the scene.
CS: From there, it gets into your office?
SR: And then it is sent to the district attorney and the decision is made as to who is going to handle it. When I was DA I had it go through my public integrity unit and I had a group of prosecutors and investigators that would pay attention to those cases and deal with them.
CS: Do your officers go through their own investigation?
SR: Absolutely. They take what they're given, but then they add to it. A lot of times the police haven't already gotten all the medical information, so you want that. What is the blood going to show you? What do forensics show you from the autopsy if there is one? Or what is shown to you from the hospital records if there's an injury? The investigators are going to go through and they're going to bring in witnesses and interview them independently. They're going to look at any tapes if you got video they're going to look at that. If there is any video that might be from cameras around the neighborhood or something like that they're going to look at that and put it all together.
CS: What makes a clean shooting?
SR: It's gauged by what the defendant is doing. Now the defendant might just be flat out shooting at the officer, and there is absolutely no question about it. The officer has the absolute right to defend themselves. You have situations where a defendant is killing a third person and so the officer has the right to protect that third person, just as you would if someone was shooting at you. And so there are just some situations where you just know it's just a...I think the term that used to be used was a "righteous shooting". It was righteous. It was justified.
CS: What would make you take a case to a grand jury or not?
SR: More than likely you're going to take the fatal shooting to the grand jury unless it's absolutely clear. I mean we had some where there was no question that the police had absolutely no choice and why are you going to burden a grand jury investigation on that? I think that is part of the discretion that district attorney's have.
CS: You guys work with police officers on a daily basis prosecuting the suspects they arrest. How do you put up that wall and take a look at it when these are the people who help you guys make some of your cases?
SR: It's a big police department. It's a big DA's office and so you're not attached to everybody at the hip. And that's what you do that is your job - to be independent.
CS: What is the benefit of having a jury go through shoot-don't-shoot training?
SR: The way I had set it up is that every grand jury would go out there, whether they were going to have that nature of case presented to them or not. It was just part of a kind of a training to this is what we're dealing with here. It gives them the aspect of how someone feels in a life and death situation, and the adrenaline. Because in many instances they're judging what a reasonable person would do under the situation. It might even apply to for instance how a homeowner feels or someone else when they are making decisions about that right to shoot and the right to defend yourself or to defend a third person.
CS: Is that a common practice for district attorney's to have grand juries go through shoot-don't- shoot training?
SR: I knew that the Houston District Attorney's Office did it. In fact they have their own shoot-don't-shoot room and set up that they have purchased. We would use the police department's, but just so we didn't have to spend almost $1 million on it.
CS: People look at what happened in Ferguson, MO and New York and wonder why it is so difficult to indict a police officer How difficult is it to get an indictment through a grand jury and ultimately have a jury trial?
SR: I think the grand jury, it's 12 people, common citizens. They are just the guy on the street and so they have their perspectives. I think the important thing is that they be given all the evidence, and I think the DAs can indicate what the law is in relation to how you defend or when you can defend. They certainly have got to give them all of that information. I think in Ferguson, although that officer wasn't charged I think it was very important that the DA came forward and said this is everything we were given, we didn't hold anything back, and I think that's what's really critical.
CS: Is more transparency the answer to making the general public aware of what goes on in an officer-involved shooting?
SR: It's not going to hurt that people understand I think that's probably a good thing, but you also don't want to do something that is going to influence an investigation in a manner that it shouldn't be influenced. Sometimes I think we have a little too much public debate before all the facts are in and that can be dangerous.
CS: How much of that office is background are you looking into?
SR: You look into what kind of officer they were, and whether they'd had other incidents.
CS: How much contact are you having with the victims families, updating them where you are with the investigation?
SR: It was always a process to have advocates within the office contact them, explain the situation. Investigators will talk to them. That's important, that they understand that there is a thorough investigation. I think it's very important.
CS: What doesn't the general public understand about this process?
SR: It takes time to gather all the facts. We live in such an instant world and we make so many decisions so quickly based upon what we hear on the news. Sometimes the idea of stepping back and taking your time, there is a real benefit to that, but I'm not sure everybody always understands it. They want an immediate answer.
CS: What has changed about this process? What needs to change?
SR: I think the outcomes can be reported, and I think the police fully believe they can be a bit more transparent, particularly in how they handle it. They haven't talk to much about that and I think that's important too. I would imagine body cameras are really going to play a key part. Dash cams are very important. You have video everywhere. What we've got to learn is how to be able to analyze and store it and use it.
CS: Can the outcome of an administrative investigation or a criminal investigation into an officer impact other cases that officer was involved in?
SR: It depends. If you have a bad officer it is going to affect the other cases. You are going to certainly go over them with a microscope. I know that every time we had an officer, and it was more related to drug dealing or something like that where they got caught up in something. We'd go back and see every case they had pending, that they were witnesses in, if it's something they can be impeached with.
CS: What is the Brady list?
SR: It is our duty to notify defense counsel when there is an officer under investigation for a criminal act that could lead to impeachment. We were very careful about trying to do that and to notify them in those cases, and it does have an effect. I remember ages ago when I was assistant district attorney I handled an enormous investigation into officers who were dealing drugs. We ended up having to throw out just an awful lot of cases that they were involved in because they themselves were drug dealers. You can't take that to a jury. They're not credible. If they are a witness to something, or they're investigating officer who took a confession, or something like that they're credibility can be shot. That's just life.
CS: When you look into case are you looking for something wrong, or looking to make sure the officer did everything right?
SR: What you're doing is trying to cast a fair and independent eye on it and that is the broad spectrum. Is there anything else? Was this done right? I don't know you go into it with a preconceived, 'I'm looking for something wrong' or 'I'm looking for something right.'
CS: Is it difficult knowing there is a public perception out there that they are either looking for something wrong or looking to prove this officer did what are you supposed to do because the general public doesn't have an eye into the investigation?
SR: I think you're making an assumption. I don't know if it's there.
CS: Does anybody, whether it's a prosecutor the police chief or a sheriff, does anybody have anything to gain by quickly dismissing and saying, 'The officer is always in the right (to shoot)?'Because I think that's what people think is everybody is out to protect their own.
SR: I don't know that it's fair to the police, to prosecutors, to law-enforcement to say that they are always out there to protect their own. That is a perception that I think the media is trying to put out there, and I'm not sure that is necessarily always fair. The Police Department has investigated their own. The sheriffs office has investigated their own and they don't hide behind it. So giving them a bad rap right at the beginning because of someone's perception of something that may have happened another state or something like that may just not be real fair to your local folks. I think the present sheriff does an excellent job in reference to looking at things and misconduct. When we had the deputy shoot the man out on the highway, I know the thoroughness of their investigation and they weren't out to protect anybody. We ended up indicting him for murder. I know that (William) McManus, when he was police chief and Tony now that he is interim chief, I know that they are all about having an upstanding department. They're looking at, we want the public to have faith in us and we are going to do everything we can to earn that.
CS: Since 2010 and 46 officer involved shootings and only one resulted in disciplinary action from an administrative standpoint, the Michael Garza case. What do you think that says about the San Antonio Police Department and how their officers are trained.
SR: I don't know if I have a particular opinion. You think that's bad?
CS:No, I think it's an interesting statistic. Good or bad.
SR: From what perspective?
CS: From the perspective of those 46 shootings were thoroughly investigated, but given the national narrative someone could see that number and think, 'Hmm, only one out of 46?'
SR: You have to look at each case, that's the issue. You've got to look at each case and not make so many assumptions based on the number. You're saying 46, how many arrests are made in this city every single day? How many times does officer stop somebody on the highway and give them a ticket? How many officers have been killed because they stopped on the highway, walked up to the car and the guy turns and shoots him dead. It happens.
CS: Do you think that is missing from the national conversation?
SR: Yes. I think that the police...the conversation is more about trying, because of some isolated incidents which are bad. I think it is bad to jump to the conclusion that the officers are hiding stuff, or doing a lousy job. Also remember that for years the Department of Justice overlooks everything that the states in the cities are doing. So it's not just the San Antonio Police Department, it's not just the Bexar County Sheriff. The feds look at everything, and I've seen them come in and charge people.Don't just blame (local law enforcement) and say, 'They're not doing a good job,' because they've got "big-brother", so to speak, up in Washington watching them.
CS: When an officer was cleared by your office was there a release of the findings?
SR: There wasn't a big report. There was a letter written to the chief of police.
CS: Could that help if a letter like that was made public?
SR: Well, I suppose that it would help in reference to knowing what the conclusion was.
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