The California Justice Department is struggling to keep up with investigations of police officer-involved fatal shootings a year after a new law granted the department more authority to prosecute cases.
The DOJ has since accepted 25 fatal shooting cases for state review over the last 16 months and has only resolved one.
The state took over efforts to investigate police shooting fatalities of unarmed civilians following a law that was formed after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
The new law, which took effect on July 1, 2021, transferred oversight of fatal police shootings from local governments to the state’s DOJ.
However, as of November 10, the state has only resolved one of its 25 ongoing investigations, even after Attorney General Rob Bonta pledged to resolve cases within a year.
Bonta said the new law would provide “impartial, fair investigations” and independent reviews of officer-involved shootings and would give them the power to charge officers with criminal offenses.
In 2019, California law changed the standards of deadly force, indicating its use “only when necessary in defense of human life.”
If determined that this law was violated, officers could face jail time.
According to internal emails obtained by CalMatters.org, DOJ employees were initially concerned that the workload from the new law would overwhelm them.
DOJ officials also complained that the state only provided them with half of their requested $26 million budget to handle the cases.
Fatal shootings under investigation involve a case of a teenage girl being killed by a stray bullet while in a department store dressing room, a man fleeing a traffic stop or others who menaced or attacked police officers.
Some victims were carrying replica firearms at the time, another was carrying a broom handle. Several were not carrying weapons.
The Justice Department resolved its first case on November 3 after a period of 15 months.
The case involved a shooting of a 48-year-old man in Hollywood who was waving a lighter designed like a pistol grip. The DOJ stated they had insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against the two LAPD officers in the shooting.
Now that the first case under the new law is out of the way, Bonta said the other cases should take faster.
“We got the funding that we got, and we’re going to make it work,” the attorney general said, lamenting the lack of funds.
He had previously hoped to have the money to set up a mobile forensic lab and to hire adequate staff for investigation teams to collect evidence.
“We have no choice. We have to find a way. Will we do it as fast as we want? No. Will we do it as well as we could if we had the full funding? We’ll always find a way,” Bonta said.
Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, who sponsored the bill, said the department has sufficient funds to work with.
“The idea was they’ll get through the first year and then we’ll have a discussion this year as far as what adequate staffing looks like,” McCarty said. “It’ll certainly be a conversation in this upcoming budget year.”
Since 2016, state law enforcement officers fatally shot an average of 140 people annually. Of those, around 40 individuals were unarmed at the time of their death.
Local law enforcement has referred to a total of 56 shooting cases to the DOJ so far, but the department has its hands full.
As the investigations drag on, some families are taking matters into their own hands and filing private lawsuits.