Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West says local law enforcement agencies are not required to ask the State Bureau of Investigation to examine officer-involved shootings. In fact, West says Charlotte-Mecklenburg police do not depend on the SBI.
“It’s totally up to the law enforcement agency to put the officer back on duty,” following internal investigations rather than wait on SBI findings, which can sometimes take up to a year, West said. Families of deceased victims in police use-of-force cases have statutory authority to request independent SBI investigations if the District Attorney does not, which is one reason the state probes have become common place.
“They’ve tried to make some improvements in the speed of these investigations,” West added.
Some are now concluded in about 90 days, and that may be why Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock has become more patient. Medlock recently told Up & Coming Weekly he would not necessarily wait for a state probe to be concluded if his own department found an officer not at fault in a use-of-force incident. Now though, Medlock says, “I will not return any officer to patrol duty until a decision is made regarding the criminal investigation which is conducted by the SBI.”
The police department’s internal affairs bureau conducts parallel investigations primarily to determine if the law was broken or departmental policy violated. Medlock says those determinations are usually made in three months’ time.
The district attorney notes that SBI agents who probe use-of-force cases have specialized training and take great pains to get to the truth. West says he’s satisfied the State Bureau of Investigation would like to have more agents, but “from the director on down, they’ve put emphasis on making improvements in officer-involved investigations. The quality of their investigations is really good,” he said. One of the things that holds up completion of some investigations is getting autopsy reports in a timely manner, West added.
“The medical examiner’s office is backed up, and I’ve told the SBI to get me their reports without the medical examiner’s findings,” added West.
He notes that North Carolina’s criminal justice system, including the courts, receives about two percent of the state budget.
Once West receives investigative findings, he and his staff take a couple of weeks to review them before he decides whether to prosecute officers. Neither West nor his predecessor have ever brought charges against cops in officer-involved shootings in their 40 years on the job. Each has been exonerated and returned to duty. Chief Medlock says some cops have resigned and left the profession in the wake of their involvement in use-of-force cases. SBI records indicate there have been more such incidents in Fayetteville than any other city in the state, a dozen cases since 2011.