Last week, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins announced the formation of a new Civil Rights Unit, a two-person team that will investigate shootings by officers independent of the police department. Chief David Brown supports the unit. "You can't have enough oversight when it comes to police-involved shootings," he said at Monday's town hall meeting. By being more open to the public about police shootings, the unit is meant to help restore the public's trust in law enforcement, Watkins said.
Engendering public faith in police officers is a goal Ron Pinkston, the Dallas Police Association's president, says he can get behind, but he doesn't take kindly to the fact that, come October 1, two non-police officers will have the full-time job of investigating when one of his members uses deadly force. On Monday, before the town hall meeting, the DPA released its own plan, which Brown can listen to or not, to improve the transparency of the department when one of its own shoots a suspect.
The DPA proposed adding two assistant district attorneys to the unit inside the department that already investigates police shootings, the Special Investigative Unit. Instead of finding evidence and interviewing witnesses separately from the police, they would do that alongside them. Adding two prosecutors would make that top unit even better, Pinkston says.
Currently, when the SIU has finished working a case, it sends it over to the DA's office. Watkins' Civil Rights Unit bypasses that, not having to wait because they're collecting, presumably, most or all of the same evidence as the department. However, Pinkston says, a second investigative team is unnecessary. "The investigative team (at the department) doesn't hide anything," he says.
There's no reason to have two units and risk a mistake being made, he adds. What if, he says, the DA's team finds that the officer did nothing wrong but the department finds she or he did? Pinkston says that would taint the investigation.
The DPA's proposal calls for a "strict policy that no information in any police shooting investigation will be prematurely released as to not taint an ongoing inquiry. When an investigation has been completed, all information will be released to guarantee full transparency to the public," according to a DPA press release. The proposal says nothing about a timeline for completing investigations, but they have a tendency to drag on.
Watkins told Unfair Park last week that most take six months to a year. On Monday, he said the Civil Rights Unit was meant to expedite that process. "We want to make sure that we do this process very quickly," Watkins said, "and we can come back to the public and explain to them why a decision was made as it relates to if (a police shooting) was justified, or if it was not." Pinkston says any type of time limit on an investigation is difficult because of the details involved in each case.
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"A timeline would be wonderful," he says, "but I don't think you can."
Pinkston also says that, along with a strict policy on when to release case information, he wants for there to be more consistency in DPD's investigations. Sometimes, he says, the department will release video and sometimes it won't. For instance, it released the video of Officer Amy Wilburn shooting and killing Kelvion Walker, an unarmed 19-year-old, in Pleasant Grove. But it has not released the video of the shooting of Jason Harrison, whom police took down after he reportedly held a screwdriver and acted aggressively toward officers. Harrison was suffering from schizophrenia.
In addition, Pinkston called for all officers to be outfitted with body cameras, to help with the investigations. At the Monday meeting, Chief Brown said 90 officers have such cameras now, and he's hoping 200 more are coming with the next department budget.
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