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New San Francisco Bureau to Handle Police Shootings

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Grappling with long delays and a perception of unfairness in police shooting probes, the city of San Francisco has pledged $1.9 million to launch an independent bureau to investigate police shootings.

The money would staff 14 full-time employees working as an independent division under the District Attorney's office focused solely on investigating police shootings, police misconduct and potentially wrongful convictions.

The funding comes three months after a civil grand jury report faulted the city for a lack of timeliness and transparency in its process for deciding whether to prosecute officers that shoot civilians.

The report found it has taken an average of 654 days, or more than 21 months, to investigate police shootings over the last five years. The DA's office says the actual average is 444 days, or nearly 15 months, because the civil grand jury based its average on a sample of only 42 police shooting cases since 2011.

Civil rights attorney John Burris says long delays in deciding whether to prosecute officers can leave the families of victims in limbo and postpone action in civil rights lawsuits against the police.

Burris represents the family of Mario Woods, a knife wielding suspect who was shot 21 times and killed by police in the city's Bayview neighborhood last December.

"Justice delayed - it creates anxiety and distrust when you take an indefinite period of time," Burris said in an interview.

Attorneys for Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who was shot and killed by two San Francisco police officers in February 2015, are still waiting to interview the officers in that case for a pre-trial deposition.

Because criminal charges are still pending, the officers can invoke their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination and remain silent on accusations that they used unnecessary lethal force.

The DA's office has yet to finalize investigations or decide whether to prosecute officers involved in 10 fatal police shootings dating back to 2014, according to the civil grand jury report.

District Attorney's Office spokesman Max Szabo said blame for delays in investigating police shootings does not lie solely on the shoulders of the DA's office.

"We are largely dependent on the police department," Szabo said in an interview. "And we have to wait for the chief medical officer's report."

The report found the police department's homicide and internal affairs divisions, which are required to submit final reports within 45 days of a police shooting, routinely miss their deadlines.

However, the report commended the chief medical examiner's office for significantly reducing the time it takes to issue autopsy reports after police shootings since March 2015.

Currently, police shooting cases are handled by investigators and attorneys in the White Collar Crime Unit of the DA's Office. Those employees are often forced to prioritize other cases to meet deadlines for arraignments and trial dates, leaving police shooting probes on the back burner, according to the civil grand jury report.

"It's a good thing to have an independent body looking at police shootings," Burris said, adding it is also important to make sure the new division is staffed with people who are experienced working on police shooting cases.

The new bureau would be staffed with six investigators, six attorneys and two paralegals, according to the San Francisco DA's office.

Before hiring employees to staff the new bureau, the DA's office must first work out an agreement with the San Francisco Police Department.

Details, such as which agency would be responsible for initially securing and investigating a crime scene, will be part of that agreement, Szabo said.

Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the city's plan for handling police shooting investigations going forward.

However, last week a police union consultant, Nathan Ballard, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union would prefer investigations be handled by a multiagency task force, like those recommended by President Barack Obama's Taskforce on 21st Century Policing.

Ballard said it could pose a conflict of interest for the District Attorney's Office to both investigate and prosecute police shooting cases.

Even with an independent bureau handling the investigation, the decision on whether to press charges in any criminal case ultimately lies with the head of the DA's office, who is currently George Gascón.

The funding for a new division in the DA's office comes amid a backdrop of law enforcement reforms that have taken place since Woods was shot and killed on Dec. 2, 2015.

The city of San Francisco has enacted a new use-of-force policy, adopted new training methods for officers and approved body cameras for police. It has also submitted to a voluntary, federal review of the police department by a division of the U.S. Justice Department.

Former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr stepped down in May after an unarmed car theft suspect, Jessica Williams, was shot and killed by police on May 19, following the fatal police shooting of a homeless man, Luis Gongora, in April.

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