Families of men shot by CA cops lose faith in new accountability law
TEHACHAPI – Three men in dark suits knocked on Pam Holland’s door one night last June. They told her that her son was dead, shot to death in a neighboring county by a sheriff’s deputy. The shooting, they said, was being investigated under a new California law that requires the state Justice Department step in when a police officer kills an unarmed person.
Pam Holland hoped the investigation would be quick and fair. Her father had been a Kern County Sheriff’s reserve deputy. She grew up around cops. She thought she could trust them — but she also believed that police agencies protect their own.
“I was like, wow, that’s awesome, this is great, they’re going to take it out of the hands of the local cops, who would instantly feel anger toward my son without even knowing anything,” she said.
But an investigation that the Justice Department officers told Holland would take eight months is quickly approaching 12. Now, she is among several Californians whose family members were killed by the police in the past two years and just want the state investigations to end.
The Justice Department opened the program in 2021 to carry out a law enforcement accountability law that gained traction after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Attorney General Rob Bonta, who co-authored the law when he was in the Legislature, pledged that the investigations under the law created by Assembly Bill 1506 would be completed within a year. But some police shooting reviews have already stretched 18 months or more.
The oldest unresolved police shooting case is from August 2021, more than 21 months ago.
While the investigations proceed, the families and their legal teams have as much or as little information as the rest of the public and they cannot push forward with lawsuits against the policing agencies.
“I am at the point where I believe families have to pay a visit to Bonta in Sacramento,” said Jonathan Hernandez, a Santa Ana city council member whose cousin was shot to death in September 2021. “All of us, every family who’s waiting for 1506 investigations, if he doesn’t give us a response, we will give him a response.”
Bonta, the elected head of the Justice Department, refused to answer questions about delays in the investigations. His office responded to questions with an unsigned email.
The length of the Justice Department investigations leads to other impacts: District attorneys cannot develop police shooting cases to decide whether criminal charges against the officer or officers are merited until the Justice Department’s review is over.
In Holland’s case in San Bernardino County, the sheriff’s office said it could not issue a final verdict on its officer’s conduct while the state review is underway – an interpretation of the law that the Justice Department denied in a written statement to CalMatters.
The department “has no policy prohibiting a local law enforcement agency from completing its administrative investigation while our investigation is proceeding,” unnamed representatives for the Justice Department wrote.
In the meantime, the deputy who shot Holland is back on patrol duty.
Bonta’s predecessor, fellow Democrat Xavier Becerra, initially opposed the bill that led to the state’s role in police shooting reviews. Becerra argued at the time it would be too costly for the Justice Department, which is under the attorney general, to take on a responsibility that normally fell to local district attorneys.
One issue is money. The Justice Department asked for $26 million to pay for the new shooting investigation teams. The Legislature allotted half of that, about $13 million.
Becerra complained about that discrepancy to the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty of Sacramento.
The $13 million budget allocation “is significantly lower than our estimates and not enough resources to stand up professional teams to perform these new investigative and prosecutorial duties,” Becerra wrote to McCarty in January 2021. “As a result, the (Justice Department) will have limited capacity to implement this bill, short of redirecting resources from other essential, mandated work, which could compromise those operations.”
Now, the length of the state investigations is “longer than average” for police shooting cases, said California District Attorneys Association CEO Greg Totten, a former Ventura County prosecutor. He added that every case is different.
Prosecutors “try to move the cases as quickly as we can, but they’re not always straightforward,” Totten said.
Bonta’s office in the unsigned statement acknowledged the slower-than-expected pace of the investigations.
“As you know, the California Department of Justice requested more funding than we ultimately received to carry out our AB 1506 work, and we’ve had to adapt and make it work,” the statement read.
“This does sometimes mean that investigations may take longer to complete than they would with additional funding and resources, but we owe it to the families involved as well as our communities to ensure that each case is done right, and supported by a thorough, fair, and comprehensive investigation.”
McCarty said in a statement last week that the slow pace of investigations is a result of thorough work.
“It’s been slow to roll out and implement, but I still have confidence in the program — as it’s better to be right than to be fast,” McCarty said in a statement emailed to CalMatters.
“I feel for the families having to patiently wait, but rest assured, independent investigations for civilian deaths by law enforcement is vital in demanding more transparency and accountability.”
Pam Holland’s son, Shane, was an intravenous drug user with a litany of arrests and jail sentences. He had outstanding warrants and he ran from the police. She knows how all this looks. But she hoped the state, with its $13 million annual budget for police shooting investigations, would at least provide a dispassionate, thorough resolution.
“I wish they would have never gotten involved"