Multiagency task force an investigative option in officer-involved critical incidents
These complex cases demand unbiased and thorough review
By Mark Kollar
The investigation that follows an officer-involved shooting, another type of use-of-force incident, or an in-custody death is of keen interest to law enforcement leaders and the communities we serve.
At the recent IACP 2021, the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) presented a model for investigating such incidents that is gaining traction: a multiagency task force.
Such task forces are common in narcotics and public-corruption investigations but less prevalent in officer-involved critical incident (OICI) investigations, which pose some unique challenges and considerations.
Unlike any other criminal investigation, an OICI investigation is sure to face intense public scrutiny – perhaps even skepticism. These complex cases demand unbiased and thorough investigative tactics, with an incident that may have lasted mere seconds often requiring hundreds of hours of investigation. A BCI analysis, in fact, shows that the lead investigator averages 400 hours of work on an OICI case.
It is vital that the investigative results in OICI cases have the trust of the public – the people we serve and from whom we gain our authority and legitimacy.
The increased desire for independent investigations, coupled with the time-consuming nature of such cases, can quickly deplete an organization’s resources. To help balance the heavy workload with the need to maintain public trust, a properly implemented multiagency task force can be a solution.
A task force approach to OICI investigations offers wide-reaching benefits – for the agency involved in the incident, as well as the agencies that elect to participate. If a single agency would typically have been called on to handle the investigation solo, it, too, benefits from the resource multiplier afforded by the task force, spreading the sacrifice of time and expense across many organizations.
Among the upsides of the multiagency task force model:
- Timeliness. Law enforcement administrators involved in OICI investigations consistently talk about the importance of timeliness in scene response, scene clearance and completion of the criminal investigation. A task force can markedly improve each of these facets.
Additionally, the resulting diversity of investigative knowledge and experience helps to ensure that, no matter the circumstances, a task force member is likely to have an answer to any questions or know how to obtain it.
- Independence. Independence in an OICI investigation is vital to obtaining and/or maintaining public trust. Unfortunately, public trust in law enforcement – including our ability to fairly police ourselves – has been called into question.
The use of conflict-free investigators from multiple agencies can not only bolster the investigation’s credibility but also enhance public trust, thereby reducing any skepticism that may arise when an agency investigates its own personnel.
BCI has developed an assessment tool to guide decisions regarding investigator conflicts of interest. Some conflicts result in automatic exclusion from an investigation; others are left to a supervisor’s discretion based on the circumstances, with varied levels of inclusion in the investigation potentially permissible.
The important takeaway here is that conflicts are assessed, documented and addressed, not discounted or ignored. Through this screening process, conducted on every case, conflicts can be eliminated, thereby strengthening the public’s faith in the results of the investigation.
- Consistency through the use of best practices. In the initial hours following an OICI, emotions are elevated and activities move quickly – all in an environment in which the stakes are high and the room for error is razor-thin. This is the time to have solid, standardized protocols in place so that all parties involved are treated fairly and receive a just outcome.
The need to improvise because of inadequate preparation is never acceptable. The task force model promotes consistency across the region (or state) based on investigative best practices. Such uniformity enhances public trust by helping to prevent investigative oversights and/or errors.
- Experience and training. For the individual investigators and their parent law enforcement agencies, the task force model provides experience in major cases and invaluable training.
- Intangibles. The task force model also offers some less readily apparent but equally important benefits, such as helping investigators develop a network of professional contacts and providing investigators with a voice in the investigative process.
At the end of the day, anything law enforcement can do to build and maintain public trust in the profession can be universally beneficial.
Although its benefits are many, the task force model poses some challenges, too. Among them:
- Depending on the state, the legal authority of the task force may need to be addressed.
- Building trust among agencies.
- Formulating operational guidelines.
- Navigating personnel issues and costs.
Communication, collaboration and transparency are key to overcoming these issues.
Having one agency (such as a statewide investigative agency) lead the task force and implement the investigative protocols can streamline the process and aid standardization. Another option is to have a board made up of administrators from the participating agencies establish the parameters of the task force and supervision.
Either way, it is crucial that guidelines are set and a command structure established to ensure compliance with the agreed-upon standards.
At least initially, law enforcement agencies and their officers may feel apprehensive about an outside, independent task force investigating OICI cases. To help mitigate such fears, information describing the investigative process and policies of the task force can be developed and shared.
Demystifying the process also aids transparency by revealing the thoroughness of what will be sought during the investigation.
When planning a task force, myriad factors must be weighed and decided. For example:
- What equipment is needed for the task force and the individual investigators, and who will provide it?
- Does the task force require a physical location from which to meet and operate?
- Given that investigators come from multiple agencies, what report-writing system and methodology will the task force use?
- What protocols will investigators be expected to follow, recognizing that certain aspects may be controversial (e.g., will officers be afforded the opportunity to review body-camera footage prior to their formal interview)?
- What about seemingly insignificant details, such as standard email addresses for task force investigators? Such decisions can have implications later on (such as simplifying compliance with public-record requests).
- Selecting and training of task force personnel. Minimum standards for investigators should be established, including years of investigative experience, prior training and training specific to the task force. Topics for training may include crime-scene processing, investigative methodology, officer interviews, witness interviews/neighborhood canvass, social media, video recordings, injury analysis, ethics and bias, moving vehicles/event data recorders, and reaction time and memory limitations.
Only investigators of the highest integrity should be included on a task force, as a way of ensuring the credibility of investigations. Potential investigators should be recommended by the command staff of their agency, attesting to the individual’s character and to his or her lack of Brady or Giglio disqualifiers and history of internal discipline.
A background investigation – including an interview, a criminal history check and a social media review – is also recommended.
Recommendations and resources
Agencies considering the formation of a task force should first assemble a working group of subject-matter experts. Those with experience in OICI investigations can weigh in on necessary staffing levels, minimum standards, call-out procedures, investigative protocols, and task force organization and supervision.
As consensus is obtained, preparing a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) among participating agencies is essential as a way of both avoiding miscommunications and delineating the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders. At a minimum, the MOU should address:
- Mission statement
- Purpose and definitions
- Task force composition
- Qualifications and training
- Use-of-force policy
- Conflicts of interest
- Media releases
- Records and evidence
- Body-worn cameras
Having already completed much of the research, protocol development and document creation, Ohio BCI is openly sharing its findings and experiences regarding investigative best practices and OICI task force creation through the recently published textbook “Best Practices for Investigating an Officer-Involved Critical Incident.”
In communicating and promoting these practices, BCI aims to provide a road map to other law enforcement agencies and to educate the public about the extensive efforts undertaken in OICI investigations.
The hope is to broadly standardize the way these crucial investigations are carried out and, in the process, bolster communities’ faith in their law enforcement.
The book, "Best Practices for Investigating an Officer-Involved Critical Incident" can be downloaded free at www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/bestpractices.
About the author
Mark Kollar is a special agent supervisor with the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He can be reached at Mark.Kollar@OhioAGO.gov.