Law enforcement veteran calls for departments to use outside investigators for deadly use of force

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) Should police be investigating themselves? It's part of a nationwide discussion.
In our area, it came up when a teenager was shot by a Roanoke County police officer two months ago. Roanoke County police investigated the shooting themselves. Many groups wonder why outside agencies don't handle these investigations.

When police officers need to stop what they deem a threat, they are trained to do whatever is necessary, which can result in a death. What happens in the investigation that follows a deadly use of force is under scrutiny. Mike Jones has made a career in law enforcement as a retired Chief of the Capitol Police in Richmond. He's a police and safety consultant, which led him to his current role as interim chief in Alta Vista.

"The use of force by a member of government is one of the most important and far-reaching powers that a government has, It's also one of the most heinous powers,"Jones said. "Police chiefs recognize that our profession is under scrutiny and we welcome that, but we want to make sure we get it right. "

Officers involved in deadly shootings are investigated both criminally and administratively to see if the force was justified. For the team responsible, it's no easy task.

"They have to manage a thorough and objective investigation trying to get as much information, as much evidence as possible and trying to get that in an objective manner is not always easy," Virginia Western Community College Administration of Justice Program Head Keith Johnson said.

Some agencies use their own internal investigators to do both investigations. Jones says he doesn't recommend that because if the investigator and involved officer work for the same agency, there's bound to be biases.

"Inherent bias I know you, I either like you or dislike you and subconsciously that affects your judgement," Jones said.

We asked 80 police departments in Southwest Virginia, who does that criminal investigation of the officer-involved shooting. Of the 62 that responded, more than ninety percent typically call in an outside investigator immediately. But others including Roanoke County Police, Roanoke City Police and Tazewell County Sheriff's Office typically investigate themselves. Lynchburg Police and Salem decide on a case by case basis.

"It's beyond me why someone wants to hold on to an investigation," Jones said.

The external investigator of choice in our area is usually Virginia State Police. State police have been called in 84 times since 2010 statewide.

"During our investigation of a police-involved shooting especially of another agency we maintain a completely neutral position, we gather the facts we gather the evidence and we present everything," Virginia State Police Police Involved Shooting Team Supervisor Bill Jennings said.

Jones says any department has the know how to investigate, but smaller departments typically defer to someone else because of a lack of resources. But he says larger departments should still bring in someone from the outside because they have nothing to lose.

"Just because you can doesn't mean you should, what is more important than public trust," Jones said. "If you have an option to enhance public trust why would you not take that one as opposed to taking an option that will increase public mistrust, it's a no-brainer."

Shooting investigations are not thoroughly covered in the state code, but it may be an upcoming topic of conversation in Richmond.

"Fortunately we've got great law enforcement here but what we want to do is try and build more trust in the community," Delegate Sam Rasoul, (D) 11th District said.

Departments that typically investigate themselves primarily do so because they have the resources. And they feel they can be independent because the prosecutor is the one making the final decision.

"Is it always assumed that the police are lying, what is the information to believe that the police are doing something wrong?" Johnson said. "I don't think it's appropriate to just automatically assume that it's not true."

Jones says trust is the foundation of policing. If the public perceives wrongdoing, even when there isn't, it's a problem.

"What we call passing the smell test, I want us to smell as wonderful as possible and I don’t want anyone to doubt what we do or why we do it," Jones said. "Because when a community mistrusts its police department then everyone suffers."

County Sheriff's Offices
- Nelson (Internal)
-Appomattox (Outside)
-Charlotte (Did not respond)
-Highland (Outside)
-Bath (Did not respond)
-Rockbridge (Outside)
-Bedford (Outside)
-Pittsylvania (Outside)
-Amherst (Outside)
-Campbell (Internal)
-Halifax (Did not respond)
-Alleghany (Outside)
-Botetourt (Outside)
-Craig (Outside)
-Roanoke (Outside)
-Franklin (Outside)
-Henry (Outside)
-Giles (Outside)
-Montgomery (Outside)
-Floyd (Outside)
-Pulaski (Outside)
-Carroll (Outside)
-Bland (Did not respond)
-Wythe (Outside)
-Grayson (Outside)
-Patrick (Outside)
-Tazewell (Internal)

County Police Departments
-Roanoke (Internal)

Independent City/Town Police Departments
-Covington (Outside)
-Clifton Forge (Did not respond)
-Lexington (Did not respond)
-Buena Vista (Outside)
-Lynchburg (Case-by-case basis)
-Roanoke Sheriff's Office (Outside)
-Roanoke (Internal)
-Salem (Case-by-case basis)
-Danville (Outside)
-Martinsville (Outside)
-Bedford (Outside)
-Radford (Outside)
-Galax (Outside)

Incorporated Town Police Departments
-Boones Mill/Franklin County (Outside)
-Blacksburg/Montgomery County (Outside)
-Rocky Mount/Franklin County (Outside)
-Pulaski/Pulaski County (Outside)
-Amherst/Amherst County (Outside)
-Altavista/Campbell County (Outside)
-Brookneal/Campbell County (Did not respond)
-Hillsville/Carroll County (Did not respond)
-Pearisburg/Giles County (Outside)
-Pembroke/Giles County (Outside)
-Narrows/Giles County (Did not respond)
-Glen Lyn/Giles County (Outside)
-Rich Creek/Giles County (Outside)
-Independence/Grayson County (Outside)
-South Boston/Halifax County (Did not respond)
-Halifax/Halifax County (Outside)
-Christiansburg/Montgomery County (Outside)
-Chatham/Pittsylvania County (Did not respond)
-Gretna/Pittsylvania County (Outside)
-Hurt/Pittsylvania County (Did not respond)
-Dublin/Pulaski County (Outside)
-Vinton/Roanoke County (Outside)
-Glasgow/Rockbridge County (Outside)
-Bluefield/Tazewell County (Outside)
-Pocahontas/Tazewell County (Did not respond)
-Tazewell/Tazewell County (Outside)
-Cedar Bluff/Tazewell County (Did not respond)
-Richlands/Tazewell County (Outside)
-Rural Retreat/Wythe County (Outside)
-Wytheville/Wythe County (Outside)

Other Police Departments in Southwest Virginia
-Ferrum College/Franklin County (Outside)
-Virginia Tech/Blacksburg (Did not respond)
-Radford University/Radford (Outside)
-Roanoke College/Salem (Outside)
-Carilion Clinic/Roanoke (Outside)
-Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport/Roanoke (Did not respond)
-VMI/Lexington (Internal)
-Virginia Western Community College/Roanoke (Outside)
-Centra/Lynchburg (Outside)