Police shooting probes: Report favors rethinking

Pennsylvania State Police, who deserve praise and support for the work they do every day, have good cause to take another look at their approach to investigating troopers’ use of deadly force.

A Northampton County grand jury that looked into the agency’s investigation of the May 20 death of a man near Easton raised several legitimate concerns. It said it found the responses of state police officials confusing and contradictory. And it called the agency’s approach both arrogant in its attitude toward outside probes in general and less than responsible in carrying out this particular investigation.

The grand jury’s work began after the agency insisted on leading the investigation into the shooting death of Anthony Ardo. After being rebuffed when he sought to have his detectives lead the investigation of two troopers’ fatal shooting of Ardo, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli assembled the grand jury. It first performed its own investigation of Ardo’s death, finding that the two troopers involved were justified in using deadly force. Morganelli then asked the grand jury to look into the troopers’ self-probe of the shooting.

The reaction of state police in going to court to block the grand jury’s report from public view was the first bad sign.

With the release of the grand jury report, one can see why the agency wanted to keep it cloaked.

The panel described “a great deal of confusion” over the agency’s stand on investigating the use of deadly force by troopers. Maj. Douglas Burig testified that it is not state police policy to insist on taking the lead in such probes, while two others, including State Police Commissioner Tyree Blocker, said it has been the agency’s consistent policy to take the lead on all such investigations.

The grand jury also received differing accounts of how state police ensure that investigations of troopers’ use of deadly force are kept free of bias.

Burig testified that members of an investigating team are questioned as to whether they have relationships with those being probed, and that if they are found to have social or personal relationships with them, the agency could move people in from other areas to conduct the investigation. Burig was contradicted on this point as well, according to the grand jury report, with two ranking officers saying the agency does not even ask about such relationships and one adding that moving in a team from outside is unlikely in any event.

Beyond these matters of policy, the grand jury report points to a troubling particular in the conduct of the state police probe into Ardo’s death.

The troopers who shot Ardo, the report says, were allowed to see video from a state police vehicle’s dash cam recording of the shooting before they gave their official statements to investigators. That is at odds with how an expert interviewed by the grand jury said things should be done in such a case.

This misstep, along with the agency’s inability to keep its story sensible and straight in its Northampton County grand jury testimony, serves only to underline the reasoning behind the 2016 recommendation of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association that officer-involved shooting investigations “should be conducted by an agency separate and independent from the law enforcement agency involved in the shooting.”