Comparing cities’ review of police shooting investigations
A seven-member panel reviews every officer-involved incident in Knoxville, Tenn., a process that’s not allowed under current Wisconsin law, a WISC-TV investigation revealed.
Knoxville’s Police Advisory Review Committee formed in 1998, after officers shot four men in pursuits or in custody. People were outraged, and the city’s then-mayor created the panel by executive order.
“I don’t have a problem with police investigating police,” said Avice Reid, the committee’s current executive director. “I do have a problem when it’s not open and results are not shared.”
Madisonians have shared concerns that the city doesn’t have a process for independent review of cases such as the Madison Police Officer Steve Heimsness’ fatal shooting of Paul Heenan on Nov. 9.
Madison has a Police and Fire Commission, but it can’t audit or review internal investigations. It does have the power to fire officers, which Knoxville doesn’t have.
But Madison’s commission didn’t hear a single full case in 2012, while Knoxville’s committee reviewed more than 100.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin declined comment in an on-camera interview Monday.
In a phone call with WISC-TV later, he reiterated an earlier press release saying he was “receptive” to independent reviews when it came to other law enforcement agencies conducting investigations.
Soglin declined to comment further, citing three ongoing police department probes into Heimsness’ actions. He would not say whether those investigations had anything to do with officer-involved shootings.
Madison Police cleared Heimsness of wrongdoing in the shooting Jan. 9, and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne had previously said the officer wouldn’t face criminal liability.
Madison Police released many records of their internal investigation, although Heenan’s friends said they’re concerned they can’t access the rest of the material. They also have problems with the high cost of an attorney to bring a case to the Police and Fire Commission.
In Knoxville, the review committee received about 15 internal investigations every three months and generally sends two or three of them back with questions, Reid said. It also gets complaints from city residents who don’t want to take them to police.
The review panel has subpoena power and can interview officers and watch squad car dashboard camera video.
The committee wasn’t initially popular with Knoxville police as another watchful eye.
“What we didn’t want was a witch hunt,” said Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who opposed the review panel as a young officer in the 1990s. “What we didn’t want was some panel set up of folks in our community that just wanted to see policemen get in trouble.”
Knoxville’s mayor appoints the committee members, who need city council confirmation. Each member can serve two three-year terms.Knoxville’s police review committee could be model for Madison
The committee has been diverse throughout its history, with membership including educators, religious leaders, lawyers, businesspeople and former law enforcement personnel.
No city or county employees — current or former — are eligible, including Knoxville police officers.
Sterling Owen IV, a former FBI agent, was chairman of the review committee for six years before becoming Knoxville’s police chief in 2004. He retired in 2011.
“We tried to set an atmosphere that we were going to look at everything and we were going to hold our officers accountable,” Owen said. “At the same time, we were not going to try to create problems for somebody who’s just dissatisfied.”
Owen said communities considering a review panel needed to hire an executive director that will fight for transparency, but not be “on the fringe.”
He said the people on the committee needed to be diverse and have the community’s interests in mind.
“Practically everybody wants the same thing — a peaceful community where people get along, law enforcement is able to do its job and is assisted by the community, but with doing their job, they have a responsibility for doing it right,” Owen said.
While police officers were initially concerned, the panel has helped build trust between the community and police, Rausch said.
“I’ve got the advantage of now having that 20/20 insight,” he said. “Now I’m able to look back and say, ‘That’s what my concerns were then and now having the clarity of it and (I can see) how it has helped this agency.”