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Cal Matters article

Is CA skipping investigations in deadly police shootings?

Oakland police officers walk through a crime scene outside the West Oakland BART station on Jan. 3, 2018. Photo by Gabrielle Lurie, San Francisco Chronicle via AP

On Sunday, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a man suspected of stabbing an elderly woman near a gas station in Altadena.

Both the Sheriff’s homicide unit and its Internal Affairs Bureau reportedly launched investigations.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that the state Department of Justice launched its own probe, noting in a press release that preliminary findings indicated that the man killed “ was not in possession of a deadly weapon at the time of the fatal shooting.”

Bonta didn’t launch the investigation solely out of personal interest. A state law passed in 2020 — and supported by Bonta, then an Assemblymember — requires the Department of Justice to investigate whenever a law enforcement officer kills a citizen who isn’t armed with a deadly weapon.

But as CalMatters’ justice reporter Nigel Duara found, the department isn’t always investigating the cases referred to it. Nor is it explaining why. Nor was it even tracking “non-qualifying” killings — until Nigelstarted asking about them.

  • A Justice Department spokesperson: “Given the mandate and the need to rapidly implement a major new statewide initiative, our office focused on…qualifying events.”

The lack of record-keeping has angered shooting victims’ advocates and local prosecutors alike, including those in Sonoma County after Bonta’s office declined a case:

  • Izaak Schwaiger, a lawyer representing the family of a man shot by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy: “To just get turned a cold shoulder like this is indefensible, and it’s a misapplication of the attorney general’s duty under the law.”

  • Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch: “It would be helpful to have a written explanation of how the determination was made to decline participation in the investigation.”

Ever since the law was passed, evidence has been mounting that the Department of Justice was straining under the added caseload of dozens of new complex shooting investigations.

Even when an investigation is opened, that’s only the beginning. Last November, the state had opened 25 cases and resolved only one. Now, it’s 31 opened, two resolved, according to the CalMatters tracker.

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