District attorneys offer first guidelines on how to investigate officer-involved shootings

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HARRISBURG, Pa – (WHTM) The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association presented guidelines Tuesday to all 67 counties on how to investigate and prosecute officer-involved shootings.

Dramatic moments captured on video, much like the case involving Hummelstown officer Lisa Mearkle, have changed the game. District attorneys are presented with unique challenges that were not presented several years ago.

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said, in some ways, the added public and media interest in police-involved shootings is good for transparency. Yet, video can shape judgement before an investigation is complete.

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“These investigations have changed,” Marsico said. “Ferguson, Baltimore have put a different spin on them.”

Marsico said prosecutors need to evolve on the way an investigation is handled. He was an active member of the Best Practices Committee for the PDAA. Over the past several months, the committee comprised 16 guidelines to best handle an officer-involved shooting.

“There are things that have been tested and are working for prosecutors for these really important investigations,” he said. “[PDAA] wanted to give guidance to prosecutors…it’s really important that we have an independent investigation.”

Hiring an independent agency or investigator is the main recommendation for all counties to follow. Most counties, including Dauphin County, already do this as standard procedure. However, there were never any concrete policies in place.

Prosecutors are also encouraged to communicate with the public more often, explain the process, and release preliminary findings to help ensure transparency. Marsico said this was key during the Earl Pinckney investigation in Harrisburg shortly after the incident.

Another lesson learned was the challenge of releasing video to the public in a timely manner while holding the integrity of the investigation. Marsico said prosecutors struggled whether or not to release Taser video involving Officer Mearkle, which the county did following a non-conviction of homicide.

“Do you release it prior to trial?” he questioned. “Do you release it if a person’s not charged? So, [the Mearkle case] definitely had some bearing on that.”

What may sound like common sense, doesn’t always happen consistently. Marsico said recommendations also include speaking with the victim’s family before public statements are made. He said families deserve that respect before they hear it through the media or other sources.

While the state still struggles with how to legislate the use of officer body cameras, the PDAA said they will continue to review policies on how to handle such videos. Marsico said prosecutors want justice, fairness, and to ensure the public a proper investigation is being conducted.

“We’ve learned over the years and we’re still looking to improve and do things differently,” he said.

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