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District Attorneys: Block names of cops in shootings

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 6:06 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala answers questions on Thursday, June 23, 2016, at a news conference regarding charges filed against two men in a deadly shooting Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Wilkinsburg.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association on Tuesday recommended investigators not release the names of police officers involved in shootings unless they are charged criminally.

The association acknowledged that releasing audio or video of a shooting is a “very case-specific decision,” but, in general, if a shooting is deemed justifiable, district attorneys should release the recordings. If charges could be or have been filed, the recordings should not be released because they could be evidence, it said.

The recommendations — which apply to any officer-involved shooting regardless of whether anyone was struck — were in response to numerous high-profile officer-involved shootings across the country in recent years, officials said. Association officials said they believed the guidelines were the first statewide recommendations in the country. Themes of the guidelines included:

• District attorneys lead the investigations and that investigations be independent of the officer's agency;

• Use the best available technology;

• On-scene safety is a priority;

• Investigators communicate with the public.

“Obviously, it's very bad public policy for an agency to investigate themselves,” said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a member of the PDAA executive board.

Most of the guidelines have been in place in Allegheny County for more than a decade, Zappala said.

For instance, he said his practice always has been to release names of officers involved in shootings, and he will continue to do that.

“It is a recommendation — it's not binding,” he said of the guidelines. “I don't see what reason that would not be something of interest to the public.”

Zappala and Pittsburgh police in 2002 agreed on terms that made the district attorney's office the chief investigating agency for officer-involved shootings. Those terms dictated the DA's office be notified immediately of any incident and that the office's investigators be given unfettered access to the shooting scene.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said that his office doesn't directly oversee officer-involved investigations — that falls to state police — but he always has been part of the investigations.

Peck said officers' names generally come out during a coroner's inquest, which generally happens anytime a suspect is killed in a police shooting. Witnesses, including police who were on scene and involved in the shooting, are called, and names become part of the public record.

“That's the coroner's practice, which I certainly approve of,” Peck said. “It does provide transparency.”

He said he sent the guidelines to the state police for review, and he anticipates a discussion at some point regarding who handles officer-involved investigations.

The state District Attorneys Association also recommended that firearms used in such shootings or found at the scene remain in place until the scene is processed. If the officer involved is still in possession of the gun, the officer should surrender the firearm to a supervisor.

If more than one officer is involved in the shooting, they should be separated and avoid discussing the incident. Interviews with those involved should take place as soon as possible, according to the guidelines.

Lebanon County District Attorney David Arnold, president of the organization, said the guidelines will benefit prosecutors and the public.

“Our goals are to help law enforcement use best practices to make good decisions, even under incredibly difficult circumstances,” he said, “and help the public better understand and have greater confidence in the process.”

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