The Use of Deadly Force by Police Officers: Can Internal Investigations Be Trusted?

When a police officer uses deadly force against a citizen, there will almost always be an internal investigation. Often the investigation will be conducted by the very police agency employing the officer who used the force. Sometimes a different police agency, or even several police agencies, will conduct the investigation. Either way, police investigations of officer-involved uses of force usually involve police officers investigating other police officers. Can family members trust the results of these internal investigations?

In an ideal world, an internal investigation into the use of deadly force would be conducted in an unbiased and objective way. Investigators would thoroughly interview every witness. Investigators would collect all available evidence. They would ask important, thorough and directed questions of the officer using the force. In short, the investigation would be designed to learn the truth—wherever the truth might lead.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that internal investigations of deadly police shootings and other uses of force cannot always be relied upon to be thorough and unbiased. In fact, too often, investigations concerning officer-involved uses of force are shoddy and incomplete. In some cases, the investigation is even conducted in a way that appears designed to exonerate the involved officers and ignore the realities of what actually occurred. Important evidence is not gathered, the involved officer is asked leading questions designed to elicit responses that justify the force used, witnesses are ignored, and important leads are not pursued.

When a loved one dies or is seriously injured due to a police shooting or other use of deadly force, it is often beneficial to gain access to the underlying investigative records through public records requests. The records of the investigation can at least provide a private attorney with a starting point for understanding the basic events. But it would be a mistake to think that an officer’s use of force was truly justified simply because an internal investigation concluded that it was. The conclusions of internal investigations are not binding in civil cases and do not foreclose family members from taking steps to pursue legal claims when the circumstances suggest that the force was excessive.

It can be important to have an attorney experienced in excessive force cases review the records of police investigations in order to make informed judgments about whether or not excessive force might have been used leading up to the death of a citizen. An experienced lawyer can “read between the lines” of a police investigation, make informed judgments about whether there are other areas of inquiry that were not pursued, and decide whether it might be worthwhile to dig deeper. Simply because an internal investigation decided that a police officer acted reasonably in using deadly force does not make it so.

The attorneys at Budge & Heipt have reviewed dozens of police investigations over the years. Sometimes the investigations are thorough and appropriate. Too often, however, they are not. When excessive force was used, civil remedies may be available despite the results of an internal investigation.

If you or a loved one has questions about what really occurred leading up to the death of a loved one at the hands of a police officer, contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation. There is no cost or obligation to do so.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.