Travis County DA makes major shift in oversight of police shootings


Highlights

Instead of sending all police shooting cases to grand juries, prosecutors will give opinion, make statement.

Grand jury will only get cases in which DA believes the shooting was unlawful or if facts are in dispute.

Both Austin NAACP president and police union president applaud the changes.

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore is dramatically shifting how prosecutors oversee investigations into police shootings — among the most politically sensitive and complicated cases her office handles.

In a break from longstanding practice, Moore will no longer present all cases in which police use lethal force to a grand jury and will instead evaluate each one to determine whether a shooting was possibly a criminal act. She will only take cases to grand jurors if she thinks the shooting was unlawful or if facts about what happened are in dispute.

Unlike predecessors, who have viewed grand juries as independent reviewers best equipped to determine whether to indict an officer, Moore said she also will issue an opinion, with help from the new Civil Rights Division she has established, and provide a recommendation “as to the legal sufficiency of a case.”

“I recognize that the handling of officer-involved shootings are a matter of great division in this community, and I wanted to see if there was something the DA’s office could do,” Moore told the American-Statesman. “The words we heard over and over again is that people want accountability. The DA who was elected by citizens of this county is accountable, and I’m assuming that accountability.”

WATCH: Officer who shot naked, unarmed teen — ‘I defended myself’

Moore plans to announce the changes, which are effective immediately, in a news conference Wednesday. In recent weeks, she has been meeting with community members — including civil rights groups, the Austin police union and other elected leaders — to discuss her plans and solicit feedback.

“I think it is a very innovative approach,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP. “I think the really controversial cases are going to be addressed, but, if it is a case that isn’t controversial, they are going to issue an opinion to the community about why. I think it’s a great idea, and I think it is courageous.”

Others, including the Austin police union, said they also support the changes.

Travis County grand juries have rarely indicted police officers for using deadly force, even in cases that were highly controversial and in which community groups called for officers to be arrested and charged.

WATCH: Woman sues police over 2012 shooting on Sixth Street

Dozens of cases have been presented to them over the years, but jurors have indicted only one officer in the past decade.

Former Austin police Detective Charles Kleinert was charged with manslaughter in the 2013 shooting of Larry Jackson, but the case was later moved to federal court and dismissed. It remains on appeal.

Less review for ‘clean’ shootings

Nationally and across Texas, policies vary among local prosecutors about how they handle police shooting cases. Some prosecutors present all fatal shootings to grand juries, while others are more selective.

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said local practices depend on a variety of factors, including the mindset of prosecutors.

“There is no model,” he said. “I guess the question for the public is, in cases where there are issues, are the cases getting the attention they need? That’s probably a case-by-case, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction issue.”

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Grand juries to which Moore and other prosecutors will present cases will be seated through random selection of registered voters and impaneled for three-month terms. The first such grand jury was chosen last week, and Moore said officials are still trying to determine which cases they will hear.

Traditionally, Travis County felony prosecutors have presented all lethal force shootings to a grand jury, whether a suspect was hit by an officer’s fire or not. They have also done so in cases in which officers were heralded for their actions by using lethal force to save lives or ending a public threat.

That was the case, for instance, for Austin police officer Carlos Lopez, who a grand jury no-billed 11 months after he shot and killed a gunman who was randomly shooting inside the downtown Omni hotel. The gunman had already shot and killed taxi driver Conrado Contreras by the time Lopez arrived.

It also happened with Austin police Sgt. Adam Johnson, who a grand jury declined to indict in 2015 for shooting and killing a man in downtown Austin who was standing in the middle of Eighth Street firing a rifle at police headquarters, and had already sprayed several government buildings with gunfire.

WATCH: Officer stopped gunman with one pistol shot from 100 yards

Moore said those cases often have taken months to present to a grand jury because of workload and a backlog of other cases, leaving officers in limbo and sometimes preventing police officials from closing administrative investigations.

“The way the process has gone the past few years, even if it was a clean shooting, it was painful for them and their families when they had to wait nine, 10 months for a grand jury,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin police union. “It will be a relief for officers and their families, especially in cases where it is clear the officer acted appropriately, which is the large majority of our cases.”

DA to make public statements

Moore said she thinks grand juries should be reserved for when investigators think an officer might have committed a crime.

Under her new policy, she and prosecutors plan to issue a public statement in instances in which they opt not to take a case to grand juries. At that time, they will release information from the investigation. (Investigative information in cases that are presented and not indicted would be released at the end of the grand jury review. Information in cases that result in an indictment would be withheld until the case is resolved.)

Moore said although prosecutors haven’t traditionally provided an opinion of a shooting case to grand juries, she thinks it is appropriate for them to do so. She added that prosecutors often do so in other types of cases.

“We should be telling the community our assessment of a case straight up,” she said. “We shouldn’t go to a grand jury to cover our actions or our opinions.”

Under her plan, prosecutors will continue to go to police shooting scenes, which prosecutors have done for years. Moore said she also plans to go to those scenes as well to increase the visibility of her office.

She said that, although she can’t predict how grand juries will perceive a case, she hopes the public will trust her work and that of prosecutors.

“I can’t guarantee the outcomes of these cases,” Moore said. “I can guarantee the process.”



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