In May, three state troopers frantically shot at a fleeing car in London Grove Township. The driver was unarmed and pulling away from the troopers, who were not in danger. Fortunately, the bullets missed the driver, and the shooting has brought a well-deserved hail of criticism from Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan.
In a July 26 letter staff writer Vinny Vella recently found in a court file, Hogan wrote to state police brass that if a bullet had struck the driver, "any decent defense lawyer would significantly damage the strength of the case and the reputation of [state police] by flaunting these errors to the jury."
He outlined the troopers' sloppy behavior. They waited four hours before reporting the shooting to the district attorney, who is ultimately responsible for criminal investigations in the county. Instead of separating the three troopers so they couldn't coordinate a story, state police let a union representative drive them back to their barracks together. And, troopers literally let a truck drive through the crime scene.
This is an age where police accountability has become more important — and more expected from civilians. The focus and the need for scrutiny and oversight are usually on local police, and Philadelphia is not alone in big cities that have a long way to go. It's time that the state police were part of that larger conversation.
At the very least, there should be independent investigations every time a trooper shoots at a civilian. But Pennsylvania's policy is not clear. State police themselves don't even know who's supposed to lead an investigation of an officer-involved shooting, according to a December Northampton County grand jury report. Current practice is that state police conduct an internal investigation; whether district attorneys conduct their own investigations varies from county to county.
The state needs to do a better job training officers and ensuring that investigations into officer-involved shootings are fair and credible enough to withstand scrutiny.
Gov. Wolf's office says he's comfortable with state police investigating themselves. But he should know that in any shooting, especially one where it's just not clear whether a trooper had cause, there should be no question about the integrity of the investigation. The best way to make that clear is to have a firm policy stating that an independent authority investigate and take a hard look at the facts. This would not supersede an internal state police investigation. It's essential the state act soon because towns, unable to afford their own police, are increasingly relying on state police for coverage.
There are at least two good options. In 2016, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association recommended that counties serve as independent investigators. That makes sense since district attorneys are responsible for charging crimes. Pennsylvania can also learn from New York, where the attorney general oversees state police shootings, under a 2015 executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Wolf and the legislature should ensure that police-involved shootings are fully and fairly investigated by an outside agency. The lives of civilians and police are on the line.