Initial confusion over the progress of a sheriff’s investigation into a police shooting last week has prompted top law enforcement officials to promise better interagency communication.
“We all met and now we are on the same page,” Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said.
The goal is to avoid the kind of misunderstandings that left Kirkpatrick with the impression last Wednesday that the independent investigation of police Sgt. Dan Torok was essentially complete, while giving some Spokane County sheriff’s officials the impression that Torok was refusing further interviews.
At the time, sheriff’s detectives were still wrapping up their probe of the March 24 shooting death of 33-year-old Jerome Alford. But Kirkpatrick had been given assurances that no criminal charges were likely against Torok, who shot the transient during a physical confrontation in downtown Spokane.
Based on those assurances, Kirkpatrick used a legal procedure common among law enforcement agencies in Western Washington, where the chief has spent most of her career, ordering Torok to provide her with a written statement of his actions without threat of criminal prosecution.
“The problem is, this is newer to Spokane’s law enforcement community,” Kirkpatrick said of what’s known in law enforcement circles as a Garrity letter. “I was speaking on one sheet of music and they were on another.”
That confusion spilled over into the community as the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office insisted, for several hours, that Torok was refusing to answer sheriff’s detective’s questions about the shooting. Now authorities say they’re confident Torok reacted appropriately, but are continuing to withhold key details about the fatal confrontation.
Still undisclosed, for example, is whether Alford was armed, and specifically what prompted Torok to first approach the man.
Meanwhile, the episode has focused new attention on growing differences nationwide in how police are questioned.
“The practice, on this side of the state, has been officers give voluntary interviews during a criminal investigation,” said Steve Kinn, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor. “But on the west side of the state and nationwide the trend is for officers to not answer questions without Garrity rights.”
Garrity rights or a Garrity warning compels an officer to make a statement, and means the officer has to waive his right to remain silent or risk losing his job. So Torok, with his union lawyer’s blessing, wrote down what events led to the fatal shooting of Alford and gave the statement to the chief.
Information in the written statement can’t be used against the officer for criminal prosecution, but it can be used in a civil trial and during the internal affairs investigation, officials said. If an independent criminal investigation revealed that the officer lied in the statement, he could be fired, officials said.
Investigators looking into the shooting refused to take Torok’s Garrity statement.
“The problem with the statement being in the hands of investigators is then the legal argument can be made in a criminal case that any findings (in a criminal investigation) were fruits of what was in the written account of what happened,” Kinn said.
Law enforcement officials and legal experts said criminal wrongdoing in an officer-involved incident is often determined within the first 48 hours. So when Kirkpatrick received a call from Torok’s attorney, Chris Vick, a few days after the shooting, she was under the impression the case was almost closed, and the Garrity statement was just needed to complete the investigative file.
Vick’s law firm represents numerous police fleets from San Francisco to Anchorage. Garrity statements are common, he said.
“What it boils down to is when the prosecutor gets involved,” Vick said. “Normally investigators do their work, then when they are done they carry the file over to the prosecutor’s office. This brings them (the prosecutor’s office) in sooner. The Garrity order is really for the purpose of completing the file sooner. No one is going to issue the order unless they are pretty sure there’s nothing criminal.”
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Guild, said Garrity is used as much as 10 times per week with officers in their department.
“In our shootings, typically what happens is homicide detectives go to the scene, and the officer is taken aside for basic questions,” O’Neill said. “Sometimes right at the scene the officer is given Garrity rights, which means he’s then compelled to answer.
“If detectives thought something was criminal, they would hold off on suggesting the Garrity warning … and if the prosecutor wants to file charges then the officer is read Miranda rights,” O’Neill said.
When sheriff’s investigators refused to accept Torok’s statement, Kirkpatrick gave it to the prosecutor’s office in a sealed envelop with the agreement that it wouldn’t be opened until investigators had weighed all the evidence and determined Torok acted appropriately.
Kirkpatrick emphasized her confidence that her sergeant had not done anything criminal. “I don’t give Garrity in all cases,” she said.
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