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AGs: Transparency crucial in officer-involved shootings

DEADWOOD--Grand juries may hurt more than help with officer-involved shootings, according to some current and former attorneys general. South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, mo...

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley speaks to the crows at the 2016 Presidential Initiative Summit on Monday at the Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort in Deadwood. The summit focused on policing in the 21st century. (Jake Shama/Republic)
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley speaks to the crows at the 2016 Presidential Initiative Summit on Monday at the Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort in Deadwood. The summit focused on policing in the 21st century. (Jake Shama/Republic)

DEADWOOD-Grand juries may hurt more than help with officer-involved shootings, according to some current and former attorneys general.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, moderated the first session of the 2016 Presidential Initiative Summit, "To Protect and Serve with 21st Century Policing," Monday at the Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort in Deadwood.

"This is our opportunity as attorneys general to really study, talk about and look for solutions to some of the safety problems and other things affecting our states and the people who live in our states," Jackley said.

Three current or former attorneys general sat on a panel to discuss the use of deadly force and legal issues involved with officer-involved shootings.

One of the panelists, former Oklahoma Attorney General Michael Turpen, said 990 people were shot and killed by law enforcement officer last year, but he said that's not the whole picture.

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"An officer would have to work an average of 694 years before killing a single person. It doesn't happen very often," Turpen said.

Part of the discussion centered around grand juries and their role in officer-involved shootings.

In South Dakota, officer-involved shootings are investigated by the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation and a local law enforcement agency. Then, Jackley and a local state's attorney will review the case and determine if criminal action must be brought against the officer.

Since Jackley became attorney general in 2009, he has investigated 24 shootings. All were deemed justified.

Within 30 days of the shooting, Jackley releases a summary report to the public. If South Dakota used grand juries, he may not be able to give a report, as many grand jury proceedings and documents are sealed from the public.

"We don't typically use the grand jury, so we're not preclosed under the rules from releasing a very basic summary," Jackley said of South Dakota's process with law enforcement shootings. "That wouldn't be right for South Dakota."

However, there is no law banning a grand jury from reviewing a shooting at Jackley's or a state's attorney's request.

Martha Coakley, a former Massachusetts attorney general, said laws around the country differ. In New York, the Manhattan district attorney sends all officer-involved shootings to a grand jury. Meanwhile, California's legislature and governor passed a law prohibiting grand juries from hearing the cases.

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"At least in Massachusetts, that would be more process than we use for civilian shootings," Coakley said, since prosecutors in the state often forego the grand jury. "We also want not to be driven just by the demands of the community at the moment."

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin took the issue one step further, saying attorneys general would be better off avoiding grand juries in officer-involved shooting cases if possible.

"Be as open and transparent as you can. If you don't need to go to a grand jury, don't, but sometimes you need to, and that's OK, too," Kilmartin said.

Kilmartin said transparency is important in cases that generate as much public interest as officer-involved shootings, especially since community members may only have a 15-second video from a smartphone on which to base their opinions.

He also said it's important to preserve evidence, get witness testimonies immediately - before they see a recording - and he recommended prosecutors go to the scene of a crime.

Kilmartin also defended police, saying they have to make difficult split-second decisions.

"I heard the chief of Washington, D.C., recently say, 'It's the job of that officer to make sure everybody goes home,' " Kilmartin said.

Turpen shared the sentiment, saying law enforcement officers have "perhaps the hardest job in the whole world if you do it right."

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"They're the guardians. They're the protectors ... They're the last strand of wire between the foxes and the chickens," Turpen said.

Fourteen attorneys general attended the first day of the summit. They came from Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Monday's sessions of the 2016 Presidential Initiative Summit also featured discussions about internet gambling, substance abuse, shooters in schools and body cameras.

The summit will continue Tuesday with topics like protecting electronic data, campus sexual assaults and state-of-the-art crime-solving technology.

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