The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation into the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw announced Tuesday, in the wake of a sweeping Palm Beach Post/NewsChannel 5 investigation.
In a series of steps to improve PBSO’s response to officer-involved shootings and its relationship with the community, Bradshaw said he welcomed FBI scrutiny. He said federal officials are looking at a single case but neither Bradshaw nor the FBI would identify it.
The FBI could be looking at one of a number of recent high-profile shootings by deputies, including the shooting of unarmed bicycle rider Dontrell Stephens, which garnered national attention last month.
“We understand they were interested, so we took the initiative to contact them,” Bradshaw said. “It’s a good thing to do. It’s in everybody’s best interests.”
In a Tuesday news release, Bradshaw outlined other changes. He said he was going to ask a Washington-based police think tank to review PBSO’s internal affairs investigations. The Post and WPTV found the agency’s deputy-involved shooting investigations were often deficient, with investigators often taking the deputy’s word on a shooting despite conflicting evidence.
Since 2000, PBSO investigators have justified all but one of 45 deputy-involved fatal shootings.
And he said he was going to create a series of “Citizen Advisory” meetings that will bring together police and community leaders.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who is pursuing a citizens review board in the wake of The Post stories, got county commission support Tuesday for staff to review the county’s options. Because the sheriff is an independent elected official, county lawyers have questioned whether the county has any oversight powers.
Bradshaw said later that he was skeptical of a civilian review board, and that his idea for community meetings would be better.
“Citizen complaint review boards inherently do not work,” he said. “They’re expensive, the experts will tell you they don’t have the expertise, and, quite frankly, they don’t have the authority” to oversee his agency.
Taylor, who is running for Congress, welcomed the sheriff’s proposal but said he didn’t go far enough. “I do think an independent review board is better,” she said Tuesday.
She planned to discuss the issue at a May 30 symposium she is organizing to bring police and community leaders together to seek ways to reduce the “unnecessary” rate of shootings of unarmed civilians. Bradshaw said Tuesday his second-in-command will attend, but he didn’t know if his schedule would allow him to be there.
He said his Citizen Advisory meetings would be more valuable. They would be meetings in different parts of the county with police and community leaders. Belle Glade would have one, as would other areas.
Participants would talk about community issues, ranging from poverty to police deployment, but would not have any oversight over the agency’s investigations into officer-involved shootings.
Civilian review boards have a mixed legacy.
In Las Vegas, civilians were hand-picked by police and were rarely critical of police uses of force. In New York, the board was criticized for not investigating complaints or recommending agency reforms.
In the news release, Bradshaw said the FBI investigation could be valuable in that it would ensure that the department is “complying with required practices and procedures.”
FBI agents looked into several instances of a single deputy’s use of force last year, after lawyer Jack Scarola petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. But the federal agency has taken no action against the deputy, Russell Brinson.
Scarola is also representing Stephens, shot in 2013 four seconds after he was dismounted his bike and was approached by deputy Adams Lin in a neighborhood near Haverhill Road in suburban West Palm Beach. Both PBSO and the state attorney’s office found the shooting to be justified.
The dashboard-camera video showing the deputy following Stephens and shooting him off camera grabbed national attention late last month after it was posted online by The Post and WPTV. Scarola said Tuesday that if the FBI was looking into the case, he wasn’t aware.
Bradshaw told The Post he would take internal steps to assure that future investigations into use-of-force incidents would be more thorough. The Post/WPTV investigation found that key facts were often missing from reports.
To that end, Bradshaw said he would invite scrutiny of internal investigations from the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, a membership organization of police officials, academics, federal leaders and others with an interest in policing and criminal justice.
PERF is respected among police despite sometimes-critical reviews and is often asked by agencies to investigate themselves. The group sometimes works with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Bradshaw said he expects to sign a contract with PERF within a week. He doesn’t know how much it will cost, but he estimated the group would spend a week at his department.
“The cost is not important,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done. We want to make sure we’re doing everything exactly the way we should be doing it.”
Bradshaw has worked with PERF before, when he was chief of the West Palm Beach Police Department. In 2001, the department was embroiled in controversy after it fired a black officer who was involved in a discrimination lawsuit.
West Palm Beach police spent $80,000 for PERF to investigate. Their report didn’t address issues of racial discrimination but did say the internal affairs division is at the level of “best practice.”
Staff writer Eliot Kleinberg contributed to this story.
See the video from the Dontrell Stephens shooting at mypalmbeachpost.com/bikevideo