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FBI investigates civil rights cases against law enforcement agencies

Federal claims time consuming, 'narrow analysis'

SAN ANTONIO – When officers shoot and kill suspects, there is often a demand for a civil rights investigation.

"Many times, the general public wants to call for an FBI investigation and wants us to essentially be the shooting review team for America," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Keith Byers. "That is not our function."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation can initiate a civil rights investigation, but Byers said that can be initiated by the FBI or, for example, a smaller police department may contact them and ask that the FBI be the primary investigative agency.

The agency typically lets local departments and prosecutors review the cases. Then, the FBI will do its own review to see if the it was conducted fairly.

"What we're really focused on -- and, again, it's a very narrow analysis in these cases -- (is) 'Did the police officer engage in the woeful use of excessive force?'" said Byers.

He said they also look at whether an officer acting in their official capacity (in uniform) asserted his/her authority.

The FBI's investigation can even start by someone just walking into their office.

"We encourage if someone's a victim of a civil rights violation, or they think they have been a victim of excessive use of force, the victim of sexual assault by a law enforcement officer, certainly we encourage people to contact us about those matters," Byers said.

High-profile investigations of Ferguson, Missouri, police and Philadelphia police were recently completed after officer-involved shootings. An investigation was launched last week into the Baltimore Police Department.

The findings of the FBI are turned over to the Department of Justice. That agency determines whether or not criminal charges should be filed against an officer. It may also issue a report on the agency and its practices, making recommendations for things like training and policy changes.

With media scrutiny and protests on the streets, Byers said that doesn't speed up the investigation. He said the public must understand these investigations take time.

"A year is not an extraordinary amount," Byers said. "Two months to conduct investigation to me would almost be like blinking your eyes."

The FBI's last statistics were released in 2012. Then, the FBI said 42 percent of its civil rights cases involved color of law issues (380 that year).

They fell into five categories:

  • Excessive force
  • Sexual assaults
  • False arrest and fabrication of evidence
  • Deprivation of property
  • Failure to keep from harm

Former Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed reviewed more than 40 cases of officer-involved shootings from 2011-2014. None of the officers were indicted for those incidents.

Click here for her discussion on how those cases were handled while she was in office.

The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green State University reviewed officer-invovled shooting across America over the last decade. While there were thousands of shootings, only 54 officers were charged with a crime.