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State DOJ Probes of Officer-Involved Killings Proceed at Snail's Pace
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By CalMatters
Published 11 months ago on
May 17, 2023

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Spurred by public outcry for more police accountability following the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Legislature ordered the California Department of Justice to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians.

At the time, legislators who introduced the bill — including then-Assemblymember and current Attorney General Rob Bonta — pledged that investigations would be closed within a year.

Lynn La

CalMatters

But as CalMatters’ criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara has uncovered, some police shooting reviews take much longer, with the oldest unresolved case stretching back more than 21 months.

Until the department’s reviews conclude, district attorneys can’t decide whether to seek criminal charges against officers. These months-long delays give little confidence to family members who are held in an agonizing limbo as their questions go unanswered — especially when they know that those looking into these cases are law enforcement officers themselves.

  • Jonathan Hernandez, a Santa Ana city council member whose cousin was shot and killed by police officers in 2021: “You cannot trust the people who just murdered your loved one to properly investigate each other.”

Scant Funding for Investigations

There are various possible reasons why investigations take so long. One is money: The Justice Department asked for $26 million, but the Legislature granted only $13 million. It’s one reason why Bonta’s predecessor, Xavier Becerra, initially opposed the bill.

Another reason is procedural. After one San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a man in June, a series of investigations ensued, involving the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office, and the Justice Department. And Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, told Nigel that agents are still learning to conduct high-level investigations.

  • Marvel: “There is a skill associated with investigating, not only officer-involved shootings, but just shootings in general, that the Attorney General’s office doesn’t have.”

Despite these setbacks, Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who also authored the bill, told CalMatters that he still has “confidence in the program” and that “it’s better to be right than to be fast.” Bonta’s office acknowledged investigations take longer than expected because of how thorough and comprehensive they are.

CalMatters is tracking all the police killing investigations in the attorney general’s office, 25 and counting. Read the summaries of each case.

About the Author

Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an ed-tech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento Bee as a Kaiser media fellow and was an intern reporter at Capitol Weekly. She’s a graduate of UC Davis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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