More than a year after parents complained about a police chase that went through a field at a northwest Oklahoma City park where kids were playing baseball, police have yet to determine whether their policies were followed.
Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said the chase, which ended with a fatal shoot-out between officers and the suspects, is one of 29 cases assigned to the internal affairs division. Investigators simply can't keep up with the caseload, he said.
“Within the last six months, I added another person to internal affairs,” Citty said. “We had four. We now have five. I would like to add another person.”
Internal affairs investigators are tasked with determining whether officers followed policy after every officer-involved shooting and whenever a suspect is admitted to a hospital after use of force. They also help investigate chases and can be assigned to criminal cases where an officer is accused, although those are usually handled by the relevant criminal division, Citty said.
In the case of shootings, homicide investigators usually do the initial investigation that helps the district attorney to decide whether any charges should be filed in the case. Once that determination is made, internal affairs steps in.
“An employee may not be criminally liable, but our policies can be more restrictive,” Citty said.
Because of the high caseload, investigators prioritize cases where there is physical evidence to gather or interviews that haven't been done. That can cause an older case to languish for months.
It was May 2011 when the chase went through Rotary Park, near NW 57 and Tulsa, where several groups of kids where practicing baseball and T-ball. The chase ended minutes later with a gunbattle that left one suspect dead. The other suspect later pleaded guilty in the case.
Margaret DeVault's grandson was playing in the park that day. At the time, she said the decision to chase the suspects into the park concerned her.
“I know they have a job to do. I know these were the bad guys. But why did they have to chase them through a park where kids were playing?” DeVault said.
Police offered to meet with concerned parents once their internal investigation into the chase was complete. That was 14 months ago.
Citty said the backlog of cases in internal affairs bothers him, which is why he has added manpower to the division.
“If you are looking at potential misconduct, you want to deal with it quickly,” Citty said. “It makes any discipline more effective, and if an officer is working restricted duty, you don't have them in the field.”
Manpower shortages are also an issue in many other areas, and Citty said deciding where to cut back isn't easy. He said he'd like more officers working on the technology side of investigations, narcotics and vice, among other areas.
“Our priority is that if someone needs help, our officers will get there as quickly as possible,” Citty said. “At some point you have to decide what you are going to do less of.”