Benton, Franklin law enforcement to form unit

Law enforcement agencies in Benton and Franklin counties are joining forces to create a special team for investigating officer-involved shootings or incidents resulting in death or serious injuries.

The special investigative unit, or SIU, would be assigned as needed to look into cases where a police officer or sheriff's deputy was involved in a homicide or serious injury.

The proposal came out of nearly a year of discussions at the weekly meetings of chiefs and sheriffs, said Kennewick Chief Ken Hohenberg. And it is similar to what other counties in the state have done, he noted.

Taking a team approach to creating a special investigative unit shares the burden of an officer-involved shooting, and ensures that the investigation will be as unbiased and professional as possible, Hohenberg said.

The Kennewick City Council approved Kennewick's participation in the unit Tuesday night.

The city's involvement does not put any burden on the budget.

Hohenberg said every law enforcement agency represented in the chiefs' and sheriffs' group supports the idea.

That includes Benton and Franklin sheriff's departments, and the police departments of Pasco, Richland, Kennewick, West Richland, Prosser and Connell. The counties' coroners and prosecuting attorneys also are being asked to endorse forming the SIU.

The new investigative agency will be made up of officers drawn from the participating departments.

When an incident occurs that needs an independent review because of officer involvement, SIU investigators who are not part of the officer's own department will conduct the investigation.

"It not only is a sharing of resources, which can be quite a bit and draining on one agency, we will also get a better end product," said Capt. Jeff Taylor of the Richland Police Department.

The SIU will be similar in composition to the Metro Drug Task Force and Benton County SWAT team, Hohenberg said. Each agency that can will contribute personnel.

Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane said the idea also has merit because the SIU will have the best from each department. Previously, each police department and sheriff's department had to ask another department to do an independent investigation on an officer-involved shooting or other incident.

Keane said while that worked well enough a few years ago, the number of incidents has increased, making it more difficult for any one law enforcement agency to be the outside investigator.

The last officer-involved shooting for his department was 12 years ago when Keane was a sergeant and he had to shoot to stop a Benton City man from pulling the trigger on a shotgun aimed at him and another deputy.

The two officers fired four times into the man, who was stopped, and who fully recovered later from the wounds.

The multi-jurisdictional SIU also could be called in to investigate non-shooting incidents, such as fatal car crashes involving an officer, or any other police action resulting in serious injury, Keane noted.

Hohenberg noted that with an SIU, there would be specific training designed to deal with officer-involved incidents.

"The idea is to have a structured team for a specific purpose," he said.

Kennewick has had several officer-involved shootings in recent years, the chief noted. In both cases, another agency had to be called to do the outside investigation at its own expense.

"And these kinds of investigations can take a long time," Hohenberg said, adding that in one of those shootings, it was eight months before results of a ballistics test were known.

The unit will have a commander, assistant unit commander, administrative commander, three unit supervisors who will oversee investigators and evidence technicians. There also will be representatives for a prosecutor and coroner.