The Twin Cities are, again, roiled by the death of a young black man who was shot by police officers: Philando Castile, a 32-year old St. Paul Public Schools employee, was shot and killed by a St. Anthony Police officer during a traffic stop on Wednesday night in Falcon Heights.
Almost immediately, top Minnesota public officials called not only for a comprehensive investigation of the shooting by local officials, but an independent investigation conducted by the federal government, too.
Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, called for the feds to get involved, as did Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Keith Ellison. Gov. Mark Dayton spoke with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to request an “immediate independent federal investigation.”
Dayton said that, already, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has opened an investigation. But what would a federal investigation offer that is different from the state and local inquiries? Some answers to those questions:
What’s the difference between a state investigation and a federal one?
State officials and federal officials investigate different kinds of crimes, for one.
On the state level, officials can investigate offenses that are crimes under that state’s criminal code, while federal officials will open an investigation only if the allegation involves a potential violation of the United States criminal code.
Crimes like murder aren’t explicitly federal crimes, unless the victim is a federal employee who was killed while doing their job.
The way for federal officials into a case like Castile’s was the same for the case of Jamar Clark: investigating if law enforcement violated the civil rights and protections afforded to individuals by law.
With respect to police misconduct, under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 242, it is a crime for a law enforcement officer to “willfully to deprive or conspire to deprive another person of any right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
The U.S. Department of Justice says types of offenses that fall into that category include sexual assault, deliberate false arrest, and excessive use of force, including that which results in death.
Section 609.066 of the Minnesota legal code outlines three scenarios under which a peace officer may use deadly force: to protect him or herself from death or “great bodily harm,” to apprehend someone known to or believed to have used deadly force, or to apprehend someone the officer knows or believes would use deadly force if not captured.
Is there any reason a federal investigation might be preferable to a state or local one?
It depends. Certainly, the federal government has far more resources and specialized expertise to bring to bear than state law enforcement, or a small, local department like St. Anthony.
To advocates of law enforcement accountability, federal investigations have the capacity to be fairer and more transparent than those conducted by local officials.
Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based nonprofit that specializes in legal equity for minorities, believes a federal investigation is necessary to fully grasp what occurred in Falcon Heights.
“Leaving this investigation in the hands of local prosecutors who may work in close collaboration with the police officers involved, I think, will cast a cloud of uncertainty over the investigation and not give the public the confidence that it needs to be certain the investigation is carried out in a fair and thorough manner,” she said.
Would a federal investigation preempt a local investigation?
Not necessarily — again, state law and federal law are different. With respect to evidence gathering and fact-finding, though, state and local officials have tended to defer to the federal government.
Earlier this week, Alton Sterling — a black man from Baton Rouge, Louisiana — was shot and killed by law enforcement. That state’s governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, called on federal law enforcement to basically take over the case. The Baton Rouge Police Department agreed.
“There is no bright line rule” governing how local and federal law enforcement intersect, Clarke says. What happened in Louisiana, she said, “is certainly not without precedent… It’s not uncommon for state and local law enforcement to turn to federal law enforcement for aid and assistance.”
With the Jamar Clark case, the federal route became the last viable one through which to prosecute the two officers involved. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined to levy state charges on them before the FBI issued its decision. (The federal government did not end up bringing any charges in the Clark case.)
How quickly could an investigation happen?
It can happen as soon as federal officials want. In the case of Alton Sterling, the Department of Justice opened an investigation a day later, on Wednesday.
The duration of the investigation, however, totally depends on the complexity of the case and how much evidence needs to be gathered.
What kind of penalties and/or findings could result from a federal investigation?
Harsh punishment can come to law enforcement officers who are found to have denied someone their civil rights, especially if deadly force is involved.
A wide range of fines and jail time can be assigned to someone convicted of, for example, violating someone’s civil rights to a criminal extent while acting in a law enforcement role. The death penalty is even possible.
However, the burden of proof for violating that federal statute is extremely high, and charges brought in federal court on these grounds are few and far in between.
The statute, Clarke said, “requires you show that the officer acted willfully in using force, and here, deadly force — that he intended to kill when he pulled that trigger and did so without basis.”
The U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis, Andrew Luger, said after the Clark investigation that this is “one of the highest legal standards under criminal law.”
Clarke adds, though, that even if charges or convictions that directly result from a federal investigation are rare, the information and evidence gathered from the process can prove invaluable down the road.
“It is not without precedent for federal law enforcement to turn over evidence gathered to local or state prosecutors where ultimately, they weren’t able to pursue a federal claim,” she said, saying that statements from officers and witnesses in the days immediately following the incident are key.
Who can initiate a federal investigation, and how much cooperation is there?
Public officials like Franken and McCollum can call for investigation, but ultimately, the Department of Justice has to decide if there’s reason enough to start a federal investigation.
If and when an investigation starts, some combination of agencies and offices would be involved: the FBI, the local U.S. attorney’s office, and/or the DoJ’s Civil Rights Division, which investigates law enforcement-related crimes.
Those groups’ officers would work, to a degree, with state and local officials. In the case of Sterling in Louisiana, federal officials will do virtually all of the evidence-gathering and evaluation.
With the Clark case, there was some cooperation between federal and Minnesota officials, with various offices and agencies issuing reports and evidence regarding what they had found or decided.
Per a March 30 report from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, multiple sources of information were used, including interviews conducted by the Minneapolis Police Department, reports, interviews, and lab results from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and interviews and evidence obtained by the FBI.