To allay suspicions raised when Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw investigates shootings by his own deputies, the sheriff has entered into an agreement that allows him to turn those cases over to a special team of investigators at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Under an agreement finalized in November, Bradshaw has the option to call in FDLE’s critical incident team to investigate shootings, a move about 18 months after a Palm Beach Post-WPTV NewsChannel 5 investigation showed that deputies almost never face criminal charges after shootings investigated in-house.
The agreement sets up protocols and assigns responsibilities when the sheriff invites FDLE to handle such investigations.
“As sheriff, I am continually striving to listen to the concerns of the community,” Bradshaw said in a statement. “To bring a higher level of transparency and appearance of independent outside investigation, I decided to have FDLE investigate the criminal aspect of our deputy-involved shootings.”
Traditionally, PBSO and most other large police departments have relied on their own homicide detectives to investigate shootings by their deputies. But that has prompted accusations of bias, as officers here and everywhere else in the country almost never face criminal charges for shooting.
The Post-WPTV investigation examining 15 years of PBSO shootings found that the department cleared 97 percent of its shootings and that evidence that went against the officer’s narrative was often ignored.
After the media investigation, Bradshaw asked the FBI to review a single shooting incident, still undisclosed, and paid $100,000 for a Washington-based police think tank to review PBSO’s internal affairs investigations. He also invited FBI help in probing the shooting of Corey Jones by a Palm Beach Gardens officer, which resulted in criminal charges.
Since the 2015 investigation, the number of shootings by PBSO deputies dropped dramatically. After averaging eight per year, the department had just three last year.
After a shooting in December in Loxahatchee, the sheriff’s office turned the criminal investigation over to the FDLE.
John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, said the FDLE agreement not only addresses public perception that “the sheriff is investigating his own and must be hiding something” but also ensures that the officer will get a professional review not tainted by politics or public outrage.
“They brought in major players with good experience,” Kazanjian said about the members of FDLE’s critical incident team. “It’s just a win-win.” The team includes retired police officers, he said.
In the last few years, police departments across Florida also have turned to FDLE, which is under state control. Miami-Dade police reached an agreement with the agency in 2014; Miami police followed up with their own a few months later. And the Broward Sheriff’s Office was in talks with FDLE last year, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
The Boynton Beach Police Department entered into a similar agreement with FDLE last year. Delray Beach police also have FDLE investigate all fatal police shootings and other deaths in police custody.
The agreement covers shootings by PBSO officers and in-custody deaths. If the sheriff decides to call in FDLE, a PBSO representative will “promptly” contact FDLE’s regional operations center and request the response team begin the investigation and coordinate crime laboratory services at the scene.
FDLE will submit its reports to the state attorney for review but will offer no recommendations or reach legal conclusions about whether the force used, if any, was justified.
The sheriff’s office will continue to oversee investigations into internal or administrative actions. The Post-WPTV report found that despite evidence pointing to failures to follow regulations, officers rarely if ever were reprimanded after shootings.
Staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this story.