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Fresno auditor: Police shooting investigations take too long

Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, left, listens as Rick Rasmussen, director of the city’s Office of Independent Review, announces the release of his first quarterly report on the Fresno Police Department in early 2013. On Monday, Rasmussen said the department needed to complete officer-involved shooting investigations quicker.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, left, listens as Rick Rasmussen, director of the city’s Office of Independent Review, announces the release of his first quarterly report on the Fresno Police Department in early 2013. On Monday, Rasmussen said the department needed to complete officer-involved shooting investigations quicker. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Fresno’s police auditor says the department is taking too long to complete internal reviews of officer-involved shootings.

In his third-quarter report released Monday, auditor Rick Rasmussen says officer-involved shooting investigations are taking, on average, more than 350 days to complete.

Rasmussen’s Office of Independent Review, which reviews the Police Department, “continues to be dismayed by the excessive time it is taking to to finish these highly sensitive cases,” according to the report.

350Average number of days to complete a Fresno police shooting report

Finishing the reviews and audits in six months instead of almost a year, Rasmussen says in the latest report, “is something of great interest to the public and is an easy step to increase public transparency.”

Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said he was a little surprised by the recommendations, especially considering the department already has publicly committed to reducing investigation times.

“Rick and I have not had a conversation about this,” Dyer said. “I don’t know what prompted this.”

In 2011, San Francisco attorney Arturo Gonzalez won a $1.3 million federal court settlement from the city in the killing of Steven Vargas, an unarmed Fresno man who was high on drugs when a police sergeant shot him.

Under the settlement, Fresno police agreed to make a “good-faith effort” to complete all officer-involved shooting investigations within one year. If the investigation is not finished within six months, the city agreed to send a high-ranking Fresno officer to personally give a status update to the family of the person shot by police.

Dyer said that was working well, but at an August community forum at the Westside Church of God in southwest Fresno, the organization Faith in Community asked Dyer to complete the investigations within six months. Dyer committed to completing the reports within nine months – with a goal of eventually reaching six months – but said it is difficult because some things are out of the department’s control.

“We’re going to strive for that six months, internally,” Dyer said.

Rasmussen’s latest report found that the Fresno Police Department’s Homicide Unit was completing its investigation “in a timely manner” – well before the one-year mark – and forwarding the findings to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office as well as the police Internal Affairs unit. Taking an average of 350 days, Rasmussen’s report said, “is too long and not supported by investigative needs.”

But Dyer said a lot of work goes into officer-involved shooting investigations, and finishing everything in six months is a tall task. His departmental direction to eventually meet that goal is to complete investigations with or without some outside reports such as forensics or ballistics. If those change any of the findings when they are submitted, the department would then reopen the investigation and possibly change its findings.

We will sacrifice some thoroughness for the timeliness.

Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer

“We will sacrifice some thoroughness for the timeliness,” Dyer said. But, he added, down the road he hopes the department is not “criticized for being timely but not thorough.”

Rasmussen’s latest report also made some recommendations for dealing with confidential informants. For instance, he said any police contact with a confidential informant should, whenever possible, be coordinated with a second officer to ensure the first officer never has to defend against “unwarranted allegations.”

Rasmussen also said vouchers submitted for confidential informant activities should be attached to a specific investigative report or case and that the vouchers have supporting documents attached.

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