Investigating use-of-force cases in Alabama

Law enforcement experts say different rules in every state allow investigators a lot of latitude in how cases are handled.

Investigating officer-involved shootings

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The shooting death of 21-year-old Emantic Bradford Jr. at the Riverchase Galleria on Thanksgiving night was the 34th fatal shooting by a police officer in our area over the past 3 years.

An investigation into the circumstances surrounding Bradford’s death is underway by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), but could take weeks or months to complete. Meanwhile, there are nearly constant calls from community members to release more information.

“Transparency is important in an investigation like this,” Law Enforcement Expert Dr. Frederick Shenkman said. “In terms of what should be released and at what point- fast is good, but careful is important. It’s important for people to get facts carefully and accurately.”

Shenkman, a professor at the University of Florida and consultant to police departments across the country, says there is no standard for investigating use-of-force cases among the nation’s 18,000 different law enforcement agencies. Therefore, the public should keep in mind that often times detectives are navigating new territories.

“Long due process is very difficult for people to put up with, but it’s still got to be done in order to get a just outcome,” said Shenkman. “Unfortunately, the only thing that’s ever seen as fair to people is if [a case] turns out the way they want.”

The Washington Post maintains a database of police shootings nationwide. According to their reporting, there have been 931 fatal shootings in 2018. As of last week there were 17 more nationwide this year than at this time last year. Yet in Alabama, we’ve seen less than half as many cases in the past year.

“I often sit back and watch the news and the first thing people say when something happens is, ‘I never thought this would happen in my neighborhood,’” Alabama State Representative Juandalynn Givan said. “Who are you to say it won’t happen to you?”

Givan emphasizes the importance of citizens and community leaders thinking ahead in terms of how to respond, not just to crime in general, but how to handle the police matters.

Many state lawmakers from Jefferson and Shelby counties declined to comment about the case or law enforcement’s handling of it. Rep. Givan expressed doubts that there is a political appetite among some of her colleagues to make any meaningful improvements to how the justice system reviews use-of-force incidents.

“Anything that deals with making changes to the structure of our law enforcement, or guns, there tend to be issues and those types of legislation that really do make sense don’t go anywhere,” said Givan.

In Alabama, a decision on whether or not a police officer was justified in using force is made after an investigative file is presented to and reviewed by the jurisdiction’s district attorney. In the case of Bradford’s death, Hoover police requested the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office take the lead. A day later, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office asked ALEA to take over due to concerns about a potential conflict of interest. But none of that was required under current state law.

“There is no right way to go about this investigation, but there is a sensible way to navigate this process,” said Givan. She joins the calls for transparency and says she’s willing to take a hard look at the protocols for how use-of-force cases are handled in our state.

It is at the investigating agency’s discretion what information is released to the public and when. ALEA has been firm in its position that details, including the officer’s name or body camera video of the shooting, will not be released in an ongoing investigation. The state agency will not share any information until everything is presented to prosecutors, in this case Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr.

“Each case, and the circumstances are different dependent on the amount of witnesses, circumstances under which a situation occurs, the cooperation of the witnesses, locating those witnesses, got to remember ballistics and all those things that go along with making a case, so there’s no set timetable,” said Carr.

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