Officer-Involved Shootings

The office’s officer-involved shooting reports, by year:

The State Attorney’s Role in Police-involved Shootings

Melissa W. Nelson assumed the office of the State Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit (the “Office”) on January 3, 2017.  Under the Florida Constitution, she is the chief state law enforcement official in the circuit, which covers Duval, Clay, and Nassau Counties. The State Attorney has no administrative authority or control over the personnel of the county sheriffs’ offices or other policing departments within the jurisdiction. But, the State Attorney is a state official and, therefore, does not answer to the municipal or county governments within the judicial circuit, including the county sheriffs and other policing departments.  The authority and control of our municipal and county policing agencies reside with each municipal or county government.

Indeed, the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards specifically note, “The prosecutor generally serves the public and not any particular government agency, law enforcement officer or unit, witness or victim. When investigating or prosecuting a criminal matter, the prosecutor does not represent law enforcement personnel who have worked on the matter and such law enforcement personnel are not the prosecutor’s clients.”  American Bar Association Criminal Justice Standards for the Prosecution Function, Std. 3-1.1 (4th Ed. 2017).

This Office strives to maintain that independence.

In fulfilling her mandate, the State Attorney employs investigators who are sworn law enforcement officers. The investigative capacity of the State Attorney’s Office, though, is limited. The primary function of the office is the prosecution of criminal offenses within the circuit, and investigative resources within the Office primarily support that function.  The Office has no current ability to process crime scenes, conduct forensic analysis on evidence, and rarely, if ever, conducts primary investigations in homicide cases. For officer-involved shooting cases, most law enforcement agencies within the circuit use the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (“FDLE”) to investigate cases that result in death or serious bodily injury from the use of force by their officers. The largest law enforcement agency within the circuit, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (“JSO”), does not. Instead, JSO assigns these cases to the JSO Cold Case Squad, a highly-trained, independent, and experienced group of death investigators who also handle JSO’s unresolved homicide cases as well as all in-custody deaths. While part of JSO, the scope of officer-involved shooting investigations conducted by the Cold Case Squad (“OIS Investigators”) is broader than what FDLE investigates. Unlike FDLE, JSO investigates all officer-involved shootings (“OIS”), regardless of whether death or great bodily injury results.

By history and custom, law enforcement agencies and departments in this circuit have called upon the State Attorney’s Office to independently review investigations of officer-involved shootings. That review is independent of the actual investigation and is designed to treat officer-involved shootings with the serious, objective, and independent review necessary when any human life is taken, particularly when law enforcement officers are involved.

Historically, a single prosecutor in this Office would review the OIS investigation and present his or her findings to the elected State Attorney, who would then issue a letter or memorandum of disposition to the sheriff or chief of the involved agency. As discussed below, those procedures have now changed under State Attorney Nelson’s administration.

The Process Now Employed by the State Attorney’s Office

Local prosecutors’ offices around the country have employed a number of localized responses to investigate and review officer-involved death cases.  Following much study and review of how other offices around the country respond to these matters, as well as review of current best practices,[4] the State Attorney has established a team of experienced prosecutors and investigators to respond to, review, and evaluate every officer-involved incident in this circuit (the “OIS Review Team” or “Team”).  The OIS Review Team captures the best talent and insights of many of the most experienced prosecutors and investigators in the Office.  In addition to the significant homicide experience each team member possesses, a number of Team members have unique experiences investigating officer-involved shootings and participating in the investigation and prosecution of federal civil rights offenses.  Additionally, the Division Chief of the Office’s Human Rights Division is an integral part of the Team.

In terms of day-to-day functioning, the prosecutors and investigators on the Team take part in a rotating schedule and are available to respond to any officer-involved incident in the circuit.  Minimally, when an officer-involved incident takes place, a prosecutor on the team is contacted by the investigating law enforcement agency (either FDLE or JSO).  That prosecutor becomes the primary prosecutor in charge of ensuring the integrity of the investigation and is charged with making initial contact with investigators on the scene, reviewing the scene, ensuring all appropriate evidence is collected and processed, and conducting whatever interviews and taking whatever witness statements are necessary.  That prosecutor can request additional investigative assistance from one or more investigators on the team, if needed.

Although the State Attorney’s investigative resources do not permit the State Attorney to conduct full-blown scene investigations, Florida law provides the State Attorney with extremely broad investigative subpoena powers.  Section 27.04, Florida Statutes, grants the State Attorney all of the mandatory process of the Courts of this circuit to command persons throughout the state to appear and provide testimony in these matters.  Florida courts “have repeatedly held that the state attorney acts as a one-person grand jury in carrying out investigations into noncapital criminal conduct, and the state attorney must be granted reasonable latitude in that role.”  See, e.g., State v. Investigation, 802 So.2d 1141, 1144 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001); see also Doe v. State, 634 So.2d 613, 615 (Fla. 1994); Imparato v. Spicola, 238 So.2d 503, 506 (Fla. 2d DCA 1970); State v. Nat’l Research Sys., Inc., 459 So.2d 1134, 1135 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984); Op. Att’y Gen. Fla. 94-86 (1994).

Thus, while the function of the State Attorney is not to conduct the primary investigation into officer-involved shootings, the State Attorney is an independent Constitutional officer who functions separate and apart from law enforcement agencies conducting these investigations.  Unlike the law enforcement agencies, the State Attorney has subpoena powers and can subpoena testimony and records that the investigating agencies cannot.

Once the investigating agency completes its investigation, the assigned prosecutor and investigator receive final reports from the investigating agency and then present the case to the entire OIS Review Team for review.  The team-review serves as one additional check and balance to ensure that the investigation is thorough, and the conclusions reached are sound in light of the facts and the applicable law.  The entire OIS Review Team then makes a non-binding recommendation to the State Attorney, who has ultimate authority to issue our Office’s opinion on the matter.

Once a report like this is issued, the investigating agency has reviewed the matter, an experienced prosecutor and investigator have reviewed the matter, a full team of experienced prosecutors and investigators have reviewed the matter, and the elected State Attorney has reviewed the matter.  These multiple levels of review, highlight the importance this Office attaches to making sure the opinions we render in these cases are thorough, correct, sound, and reliable.

The Office also seeks to ensure that its conclusions and reasoning related to OIS reviews are transparent.  To this end, we have prepared this comprehensive report available to the public.

Footnote

[4]  See Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, 21st Century Principles of Prosecution: Peace Officer Use of Force Project, APAINC.ORG, (Mar. 9, 2017) http://APAINC.org/peace-officer-use-of-force/.