THE U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District was taken to task in a report last year for the amount of time it takes to investigate officer-involved shootings. The criticism unfortunately seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The public is still waiting for answers to questions about the fatal shooting more than 10 months ago of a 31-year-old motorcyclist — which is typical of the office’s lack of urgency in handling these critical matters.
“Our office is continuing to work with the Metropolitan Police Department” on the Sept. 11, 2016, shooting of Terrence Sterling, a U.S. attorney’s spokesman told us last week. Last month, Mr. Sterling’s family issued a statement calling attention to the “disheartening” amount of time that has passed without answers. Mr. Sterling was shot after police said he rammed his motorcycle into a squad car. But questions have been raised about that account and about why the officer, equipped with a body camera, failed to record the event, in apparent disregard of department policy. “It is hard to reconcile how quickly the police will charge our citizens yet, when it’s one of their own, it seems as if they are looking for any way to avoid it,” the family said in their statement.
Clearly there must be a thorough investigation with no rush to judgment. But the amount of time that federal prosecutors take to review police-involved shootings in the District to determine whether there are violations of federal civil rights or D.C. criminal laws has long been a worrisome issue. A report last year by former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich, which was commissioned by the D.C. auditor, said it takes on average 19 months to close a case and recommended that investigations be completed within six months. More reasonable, said prosecutors in their response, was nine months, the amount of time under D.C. law that prosecutors have to pursue a grand jury indictment against a murder suspect who is jailed awaiting trial.
Each case is different, and no doubt there are cases of such complexity that more time and work may be needed. But prosecutors should recognize that each day that goes by without answers results in a toll not only on families of the victim but also on the officers involved. It also leaves the public wondering how much official interest there is in getting to the bottom of police-involved shootings.
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