Special investigative unit good beginning for police

A special team of law enforcement officers from multiple Tri-City jurisdictions has been created to investigate officer-involved shootings or other incidents that result in death or serious injury.

It is a good move that could be made better.

Similar collaborations have proved to be powerful tools in other parts of the state, and it's always a smart step to borrow from others' success.

Outside law enforcement agencies are almost always called in to investigate officer-involved shootings to ensure objectivity and reduce the risk of emotional ties clouding anyone's judgment.

But the special investigative unit -- or SIU -- is something far beyond asking a single jurisdiction to come in to run an investigation.

Plans for the Mid-Columbia team took nearly a year to put together, and will involve the Benton and Franklin County sheriff's departments as well as police from Pasco, Richland, Kennewick, West Richland and Prosser. That's a depth and breadth of knowledge and experience beyond what any single department could provide during a sensitive investigation.

We see nothing but positives for such a team. It allows the different jurisdictions to share the burden of the investigation, provides for a wide range of experience and skills and puts some distance between co-workers in a department with an active investigation.

The unit will be a lot like the Metro Drug Task Force or the Benton County SWAT Team, with any agency that is able contributing personnel to the effort when needed.

With the number of officer-involved incidents increasing, it was become difficult on individual departments to fill all the duties of an outside investigator.

And the unit won't be limited to officer-involved shootings. Investigations could include vehicle accidents or any other police action that resulted in serious injuries. Specific training would be provided for those designated to investigate officer-involved incidents.

Any police action that is linked to a death or serious injury will be high profile. That's as it should be. The public has a right to know whether the officers involved followed protocol or strayed outside the prescribed procedures.

The investigations take a lot of time and resources to ensure all relevant evidence is investigated. This new team will help.

A commander, assistant unit commander, administrative commander, three unit supervisors to oversee investigators and evidence technicians will make up the team. Representatives of a prosecutor's office and coroner also will be included.

But while the investigative team is being developed, the Mid-Columbia law enforcement community needs to be thinking about another component: the citizens.

The public needs to know that the team's investigations are objective and thorough. Reviews by a coroner's inquest and the prosecuting attor-ney are already part of the process and provide some assurances.

But that won't always be enough to convince people close to an incident that their voices are being heard or to satisfy family members and others who question the results of an investigation.

Many communities have civilian review boards or similar offices to field citizen complaints. Obviously, laymen can't investigate crimes, but they can help increase public confidence in the process.

We're not sure what model for civilian involvement is right for the Mid-Columbia but the public's participation at some level is a good idea.

Done right, it can enhance what's already a good program for investigating police incidents.