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Arizona Senate panel sets up division to investigate police use of force

House Speaker Rusty Bowers earlier this year announcing the plans for a special bureau within the Department of Public Safety to investigate police shootings.
Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers earlier this year announcing the plans for a special bureau within the Department of Public Safety to investigate police shootings.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- An Arizona Senate panel unanimously approved plans Tuesday to set up a special division within the Department of Public Safety to investigate police use of force despite concerns by some that it does not go far enough to ensure a true independent review.
The legislation sponsored by House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, is designed to be a key step in ensuring that law enforcement agencies do not investigate "critical force incidents'' involving their own officers.
Nothing would require police and sheriff's departments to use the new DPS bureau. They also could turn an inquiry over to a regional law enforcement task force or any other agency.
But HB 2650 makes the new division of DPS an ultimate option.
Bowers said he contacted various police chiefs and sheriffs following a series of shootings last year amid questions by some in the public about whether the incidents were being properly investigated. They, in turn, came up with this plan. And Bowers told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee he believes it makes sense.
"There was, and I think there still is, a sense among many people that they would like to not have any 'good old boy' reviews, but that there would be a very professional oversight and training by the officers involved'' in doing the review, he said.
What would be covered is any discharge of a firearm by a police officer in an encounter, regardless of whether that resulted in the death or injury to anyone. But it also would include any intended use of deadly force that results in death or serious injury to someone else, whether the officer was on or off-duty.
Bowers said there was a buy-in to the idea by all of the agencies involved.
"They all want to have citizen confidence in what they do,'' he said. "It reaffirms public trust in law enforcement across the state.''
But Sen. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, said she got a list of concerns and objections from the William E. Morris Institute for Justice.
For example, she said, the organization that advocates for low-income Arizonans wants to be sure there is an avenue by members of the community for "meaningful independent review'' of instances where police use force.
Bowers, for his part, said nothing in the legislation precludes communities from establishing their own civilian review boards. Nor does it bar them doing their own investigations.
But this, he said, is separate.
Teran, however, said the organization also wants community involvement in how this new bureau would be set up, "with specific direction to include historically marginalized communities, including the disability community, communities of color, indigenous communities and immigrant communities.''
She said they also want the involvement of "trained civil rights experts'' in both setting up and oversight of the new DPS bureau.
Bowers did not rule out any of that. But he said there has to be a starting point.
"This doesn't pretend to do everything all at once,'' Bowers said.
But the speaker said he's unsure about having outside groups and interests actually involved in any probe by this new DPS unit.
"One thing we wanted to preserve is the absolute professionalism of any investigation,'' Bowers said.
"I'm not familiar with someone being a civil rights-trained investigator,'' he continued. "But I would certainly be open to understand that more -- and if it could fit within a very tight professional investigation.''
Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, pointed out that DPS already is short of officers and questioned where the agency would get the additional officers who would be needed to do these investigations.
Gilbert Police Chief Mike Soelberg, who has coordinated much of the discussion that resulted in the legislation, sought to reassure lawmakers.
"Our goal is not to deplete DPS' staff,'' he said. Instead, Soelberg said, DPS would recruit from elsewhere, including retirees.
"We've got a lot of very experienced homicide investigators, violent crime investigators that are looking for that second career,'' he said. "They would be eligible to participate in this.''
In fact, Soelberg said, the special unit even could be staffed from officers outside the state if they can get the required credentialing from the Police Officer Standards and Training Board.
The legislation, which now goes to the full Senate, provides $24.4 million to DPS to establish and maintain the new unit. It already has cleared the House.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia