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Deputies rarely found at fault in flawed shooting investigations


Deputy Thomas LaRoche seemed to break sheriff’s office regulations when he tried to stop a shoplifter in January 2009.

When the thief drove away, LaRoche stood in his path, fired multiple times into the car, then moved out of the way, records show.

Two of the deputy’s rounds went into the arms of the 50-year-old thief, Broderick Hay. Another went into the chest of the 42-year-old woman sitting beside him. Both lived.

The department’s strict policy tells deputies not to stand in front of a car and not to shoot into it if they can get out of the way.

But Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office internal affairs investigators found nothing to fault. Two lieutenants, a captain and Sheriff Ric Bradshaw signed off on the report, which never even referenced the department’s policy against shooting into cars.

At PBSO, it was business as usual.

The Post reviewed thousands of pages of PBSO’s investigation files and found the agency almost never holds its deputies accountable when they fire their weapons, even in cases like LaRoche’s, where policy violations seem apparent.

Their internal investigators ignore or downplay evidence that could be critical of the deputy. They don’t question a deputy’s statement, even when facts show the deputy didn’t tell the truth. Their reports often leave out basic information, such as how many shots the deputy fired and whether the suspect lived.

In one shooting, internal affairs did no investigation at all.

It all goes unquestioned by supervisors and Bradshaw.

But internal affairs can be blamed only so much. Bradshaw often already has declared the shooting justified.

One of the most common criticisms of police is that they investigate their own. Without rigorous internal oversight, police lose the community’s trust and bad police practices are reinforced, the U.S. Department of Justice has said.

“Without routine, thorough force review, officers may become less careful about whether they use force consistently with policy or law,” the DOJ wrote in its investigation into Newark, N.J., police last year. “Poor decisions, bad tactics and lax adherence to policy and law can reinforce themselves over time and become a part of the culture.”

Only 12 shootings not justified

When it comes to police shootings, there are two avenues of oversight: local or federal prosecutors, who look to see whether an officer broke the law. Then there are the department’s own internal affairs investigators, who look to see whether the deputy violated policy and required discipline.

The standard for finding that an officer broke the law is very high — beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard for finding an officer broke policy is just a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning at least 51 percent of the evidence goes against the officer.

Even with that low standard, the department almost never finds anything to fault. Of the agency’s 123 shootings since 2000, it found only 12 violated the department’s shooting policy.

That kind of justification rate is common in policing, but it’s one of the things the DOJ targets when evaluating whether a police department is using excessive force.

Miami police’s rate of justifying shootings was only 87 percent, compared with PBSO’s 90 percent, but the DOJ still flagged it in its 2013 investigation. The Cleveland Police Department’s high justification rate was “simply not credible even in the very best police department,” the DOJ wrote last year.

PBSO will find shootings out of policy when there is little at stake in the outcome. In two of those 12 shootings, for example, the deputy already had killed himself. Another seven were accidental shootings in which no one was injured. Two were off-duty shootings not related to police functions.

The other was a new hire who was on probation, meaning he could be — and was — easily fired.

By comparison, they have justified many highly questionable shootings, including:

  • An unarmed man who was shot while sleeping in his car in his own driveway. He lived.
  • Two cases where deputies accidentally shot themselves.
  • Deputies shooting into moving vehicles, 15 cases since 2006, after Bradshaw changed policy to prohibit it except in the most extreme circumstances.

 

Internal affairs investigators should be looking for policy violations, such as the policy against shooting into cars, experts say. The policy is clear: don’t do it, except in “exigent circumstances.”

But investigators never consider the policy in their reports. Bradshaw says the “exigent circumstances” apply in every case if the deputy fears for his life.

Besides, he said, the criminal investigation and state attorney have already cleared the deputy.

He acknowledged that “some of these reports could have been better,” but it wouldn’t have changed whether the deputy violated policy based on the “totality” of the investigation, he said.

“Between state attorney, the criminal, IA, and after-action (review), it doesn’t change what the outcome’s going to be,” he said. “There were still exigent circumstances there that led the deputy to do what he had to do.”

‘Took the action he had to take’

The Post found shooting reviews flawed from the start.

Bradshaw often publicly declares shootings justified at the scene, at the earliest stages of the investigation.

After deputies shot and killed a woman wielding a knife on her husband in 2013, Bradshaw said they “had to do what they had to do.” After a deputy shot and killed a man outside a bar in 2012, Bradshaw was unyielding: “We had to take this action.” After a deputy killed a man wielding a hammer and shears in 2012, he said the deputy “took the action he had to take.”

That can bias an investigation by placing pressure on internal affairs investigators, experts and observers say.

“If you’ve already announced that this was a good shooting — that this was a justified application of deadly force — will the investigation be thorough and complete? Or will it be an investigation to ensure that it meets the opinion that’s already been rendered?” said Dennis Root, a former Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputy and national expert on use of force.

“It is not our jobs 10 minutes later to say it was a good shooting,” he added. “We owe it to our community that we are actually looking at it, investigating it and verifying that we did the right thing.”

Bradshaw doesn’t believe he’s biasing the investigation because he’s merely relaying information that his investigators have told him at the scene.

Even the good things the department is doing are flawed.

Within hours of a shooting, the shooting deputy is interviewed by the department’s homicide investigators, internal affairs investigators and officials with the state attorney’s office at the same time. That cooperation among the investigators is considered a “best practice” nationally because everyone is exposed to the same facts and can ask questions.

Most of the time, the investigators do a “walk through” interview with the deputy, where he recounts what happened on video. That’s a good practice, one that Bradshaw made mandatory when he became sheriff.

But they’re brief. The Post has seen two interviews. One was 11 minutes long, another was six and a half minutes long. That’s usually the only statement investigators get from the deputy about the shooting.

And they can be biased, too. The Post found examples of leading questions, where they made sure the deputy said the right things in the interview.

When deputy Samuel Peixoto was questioned on video in 2008 after killing a man whom he said stabbed him with a knife, someone asked Peixoto if he was afraid the man would lunge at him with the knife.

“Yes,” Peixoto replied.

Then the person, who isn’t named in a transcript of the interview, made sure to point out that Peixoto had done what he’d been trained to do.

“Is that part of your training? In other words, to have that concern with an edged weapon, that someone could lunge at you again?” the person asked.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

In a shooting four months earlier, in which Peixoto fired 12 rounds blindly into the woods, a detective led Peixoto to say the critical words: that he feared for his life.

“What was your feeling during this? Did you you fear you would be killed?” the detective asked.

“I thought my life was in danger,” he replied.

Internal affairs eventually ruled both of Peixoto’s shooting not justified, nine days after Peixoto learned he was going to be charged with a crime and killed himself. It’s the only fatal shooting they’ve found not justified since at least 2000.

Reports flawed, unquestioned

IA reports are often incomplete or misleading, The Post found:

  • In 2008, Cpl. Richard Logsdon shot Adam Phillips in his car after he thought Phillips was reaching for a gun. Phillips, who was unarmed, died. The 26-page internal affairs report summarizes 16 witness statements, including other deputies. But it doesn’t include a summary of the most important person’s statement: Logsdon’s.
  • In 2005, deputy Nicholas Lentini shot into a stolen vehicle after the driver, Kareem Foulks, tried to get away. But the report doesn’t include basic facts, such as how many rounds the deputy fired or whether anyone was hit.
  • In 2010, deputy Jason Franqui shot a 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome when he said the boy drove at him. The internal affairs investigator said video confirmed the deputy’s statement. But it actually shows Jeremy Hutton driving away from the deputy. The report also didn’t include the fact that the bullets went into the side and back of the minivan, and two went into a passing car. Hutton survived.

 

The investigations never mention whether the deputy used poor tactics that placed himself in harm’s way.

Franqui, for example, stopped in front of Hutton’s minivan, with the driver side of his car facing the front of Hutton’s minivan, guaranteeing that Hutton would drive in the deputy’s direction.

West Palm Beach and Boynton Beach police investigators sometimes bring up in their reports how things could have been done better, records show.

But at PBSO, such reviews are the responsibility of the Post Critical Incident Assessment Team, made up of about a dozen high-ranking administrators and low-level deputies.

Most of the team’s records are secret. It’s managed by PBSO lawyers so the agency can claim their work is attorney-client privileged.

The agency did provide The Post with notes from five meetings between 2009 and 2011, and they show that the team did cast a critical eye toward specific incidents.

In 2008, deputy Eric Bethel shot and killed Ruben DeBrosse, a 16-year-old who earlier that year had been the sheriff’s top Eagle cadet. DeBrosse had backed into Bethel’s patrol car during a traffic stop. The team, which met more than a year later, noted the deputy “could have taken a more tactical position” while approaching DeBrosse’s car.

“Slow things down. Once the vehicle crashed into the front of the patrol vehicle, why do we have to approach?” their notes state. “This time could have been utilized to provide more information on the radio while maintaining a secure position.”

Deputy fires with tot in car

The Post found one case in which internal affairs did no investigation at all.

In January 2011, deputy Juvencio Rivera was driving his personal SUV in Belle Glade with his fiancee and toddler when he saw a car drive erratically around them.

Rivera decided to pursue the car because he thought the driver was impaired. In reality, the driver, Jean Claude Mila Jr., was racing to a hospital because his brother had been shot.

During the pursuit, Mila thought Rivera was trying to attack him, so he shot at Rivera’s car. Rivera used his department-issued handgun to fire back, then kept pursuing, with his wife and toddler huddled on the floor of the car.

One of Mila’s passengers called 911 to report Rivera, and Mila ended up driving to the police station for help.

No one was hit during the exchange.

That was enough for internal affairs.

“He was off duty, driving his personal vehicle, and responded to an unprovoked threat against him and his family,” they wrote. “No further investigation is warranted at this time.”



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