Officer-Involved Critical Incident Investigations
The District Attorney heads the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office (SJCDA) and is the Chief Law Enforcement Officer in San Joaquin County. The responsibility of the SJCDA is “within her discretion,” to “initiate and conduct on behalf of the people all prosecutions for public offenses.” (Cal. Government Code § 26500.)
The mission of the SJCDA Office’s Officer-Involved Critical Incident Unit is to ensure that such cases are investigated in an independent, fair, thorough, and expeditious manner to ensure justice and public trust.
The SJCDA OICI Unit investigates, oversees, reviews, and, when warranted, prosecutes officer-involved critical incidents. The OICI Unit is under the supervision of the Special Operations Division.
In addition, the OICI Unit is involved in participating in public education and working with stakeholders locally and nationally. For instance, in 2018, District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar and Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau, who oversees the OICI Unit, traveled to the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (IIP) as part of a national working group developing best practices for officer-involved critical incidents. The working group consists of prosecutors, local law enforcement, and community stakeholders from across the country. Toolkit on Officer-Involved Fatalities and Critical Incidents
The OICI Unit has also engaged with community leaders locally throughout San Joaquin County as well as sought input from other interested entities such as the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School.
The OICI Unit will continue our collaboration and outreach efforts with these groups and others in order to achieve the best practices in California.
An Officer-Involved Critical Incident (OICI) is an incident involving the use of force by a police agency employee, whether intentional or accidental, that proximately causes the death of another human being. These incidents include officer-involved shootings, uses of force, and traffic collisions.
In 1994, all local law enforcements agencies in San Joaquin County signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the SJCDA Office. The MOU outlines an established set of procedures often referred to simply as the “Protocol”.
Typically, in an incident, the police agency where the incident occurred will call the SJCDA Bureau of Investigations to notify them that an OICI has occurred. Our Bureau of Investigations assembles a team of investigators and, along with a designated OICI prosecutor, they will respond to the scene. The police agency will also notify the Medical Examiner and, depending on the circumstances, the Bureau of Forensic Science of the California Department of Justice or the California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT). Investigators from all these separate entities comprise the Protocol Task Force.
At a briefing, teams will be formed involving the various investigators and, assigned three primary duties: 1) scene investigation and evidence collection; 2) interviews of involved officers; and, 3) location and interviews of civilian witnesses.
After the initial investigation, Task Force members will re-convene to determine what, if any, follow-up investigation is needed. This might include computer or cell phone analysis, search warrants, or additional medical tests.
Once the investigation is complete, the reports and evidence collected from all the Task Force members is submitted to the OICI Unit. The OICI Unit will review the investigation and present its findings, in a written memorandum, to the OICI Review Committee made up of senior prosecutors and investigators. Afterwards, the OICI Review Committee will make a recommendation of a course of action to the District Attorney. The District Attorney then makes an independent review of the investigation and determines a final course of action.
In the review process of an OICI, a written memorandum is authored with a recommendation whether or not to filed charges and submitted to the OICI Review Committee. In the determining whether or not to file criminal charges, a careful analysis of the facts is undertaken and applied to the prevailing law. The purpose of a review by the SJCDA OICI Unit is to determine whether or not, based on the evidence, an officer’s use of force was necessary and objectively reasonable given the circumstances at the time of the incident. In other words, as the US Supreme Court has said, the “‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." (Graham v. Conner (1989) 490 U.S. 386, 396.)
If it is determined that criminal charges are not warranted, a final memorandum is written describing the incident and the legal reasoning behind the decision not to file charges. This decision is made independent of any administrative investigation and review made by the involved agency.
Before the public release of the memorandum, two things occur - the memorandum is sent to the Chief Executive Officer of the involved agency and the family of the decedent is notified. After the family is notified, they are given an opportunity to meet in person to receive the memorandum, have it explained, and ask any questions they might have. If there is audio or video recordings of the incident, family members are given an opportunity to hear or view the recordings. Once this happens, the memorandum is released to the public.
If it is determined that criminal charges are warranted, then a criminal complaint is filed listing the appropriate charges and the investigation follows the normal procedure that any criminal prosecution would.