What does an officer-involved shooting investigation in South Dakota look like?
Across 14 officer-involved shootings in South Dakota since 2018, all were deemed justified.
MITCHELL — When an officer resorts to using deadly force, they forfeit their weapon, their belt and even their clothes.
In March, officer-involved shootings in Hanson County and Rapid City each left one person dead. As is standard, trained teams of specialized agents with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation are brought in to investigate an officer’s use of deadly force.
The DCI, however, has a strict policy on the release of information during active investigations. With the only information regarding the deadly shootings near Farmer and in Rapid City coming via brief press releases from the DCI, the public is left to wonder what happened.
Jim Severson, a 40-year law enforcement veteran and former DCI agent who investigated officer-involved shootings, expects findings to be released within 30 days of each incident.
“I’ve worked lots of officer-involved shootings. I’ve worked them in Yankton, Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Salem,” Severson said. “I was the case agent when Ethan Johns killed Chad Mechels.”
Severson said whenever an officer fires their weapon in the line of duty, the DCI begins an investigation that looks to answer one question: Was the use of deadly force justified?
The first thing a law enforcement agency must do following a shooting is isolate the officers involved to prevent any allegations of collusion. Officers will forfeit their equipment and uniform as evidence.
“We start by collecting the officer’s duty belt and his weapon. We collect their uniform or whatever they were wearing,” Severson said, noting some officers are hesitant to give up their guns. “It’s a bad deal. If I'm involved in a shooting and I have another cop asking me for my gun, that's tough. Nobody does it quickly. It’s a slow process and a really personal deal.”
Severson said the rest of the investigation actually mimics the procedure law enforcement would follow if officers were not involved in the shooting.
“Once you get past the very beginning, it’s no different than any other investigation,” Severson said. “DCI has a definitive protocol. There’s basically a checklist that we used to follow.”
The next item on that checklist is conducting initial interviews on anyone who fired their weapon.
“The protocol starts with the officer that is involved. He or she is the first person that is officially dealt with,” Severson said. “You tell them, ‘You don’t have to talk to me now. If you want to go talk to a lawyer or union rep, that's up to you, but at some point, we need to talk, and you need to do a report.”
While officers have the same rights as a citizen to speak with counsel before providing investigators with their side of the story, most will be required by their agency to comply with the investigation. Severson believes there’s a delicate balance in giving an officer the time to process what happened and speak with counsel with the importance of a speedy interview.
“At that point in the game, a lot of times a guy is still trying to process the whole thing, that’s why we don't just jump in and interview them,” Severson said. “I don’t want to wait too long, but I surely don’t want to force the person into an interview when they’re not ready, but I’m going to want it to happen as soon as I can.”
After interviews are conducted on the officer or officers who fired their weapons, the DCI will move on to interviews with every officer who responded before beginning to compare those interviews with other evidence, such as video from car and body cameras.
During the course of the investigation, Severson affirmed officers are treated the same as the average citizen would be.
“It’s not a lot different than if a non-cop shoots someone. Just because they’re an officer doesn't mean they're gonna get special treatment,” Severson said. “Might I be a bit more understanding when I talk to a fellow officer? Yeah. Do I read them their rights? No. They’re not under arrest.”
Though he never had an instance of what he referred to as “a bad shoot,” he said the investigation would take a turn if there was even the slightest suspicion that an officer was being less than honest.
“If at any point during an officer-involved shooting investigation we feel that [use of deadly force] wasn’t legitimate, we’re gonna change gears. We’re going to go into a criminal investigation,” Severson said. “It changes the demeanor, it changes the way we go at it, it changes the fact that if you didn’t have a lawyer before, you better get one now.”
Using his past experience as a law enforcement instructor and as a firearms instructor, Severson detailed the force continuum, also known as use of force escalation. If the mere presence of an authority figure isn’t enough to deter a subject, officers have many tiers of the continuum to escalate to, including physical force, pepper spray, tasers and more. The use of a firearm should be the last resort for an officer, and only when they are in immediate fear of their life or the life of another.
In the investigations he’s conducted, Severson said if an officer’s answer to one question matches the evidence collected at the scene, it’s likely the officer will be cleared from wrongdoing.
“I will always tell the officers, you need to be able to articulate why you did what you did when you did it. If you answer those three questions, you will have gone through your entire range of emotions and your entire thought process,” Severson said. “If you can’t give me an answer to one of those questions, we’ve got a problem.”
After the conclusion of the investigation, the Office of the Attorney General publishes their findings and a decision on whether or not a shooting was justified. Across 14 officer-involved shootings since 2018, all were deemed justified.