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House bill would create DPS bureau for investigating police shootings

Hoping to build or restore public confidence, law enforcement agencies from around the state are lining up behind legislation that would require them to farm out some criminal investigations of their own to others.

But not all incidents. And not just yet.

HB 2650, would create a "major incident division" within the Department of Public Safety. It would be available beginning July 1, 2025, to investigate any "critical force incident" of any police officers. That includes the use or intended use of deadly force.

Police and sheriff's departments would not be required to use DPS. Instead, they could turn the inquiry over to a regional law enforcement task force or any other agency. The key, said House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) is that the probe could not be done in-house.

"It is my hope this legislation will affirm and reaffirm public trust in our law enforcement," he said.

"That is critical," Bowers continued. "And it will also increase accountability across the state."

The proposal, approved Monday by the House Committee on Military Affairs and Public Safety, comes from a working group of police chiefs and sheriffs.

"It is our belief collectively that if there's going to be legislation written regarding law enforcement, that law enforcement leaders must be at the table, not because we expect that it is our wishes that should be carried out, but it's our expertise that must be heard," said Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said.

More to the point, he said it will provide "transparency and accountability to investigate our own."

The move comes as police across the nation are under increased scrutiny for their interactions with civilians. That includes not just incidents that result in death or injuries of those who come into contact with police but allegations that there are racial elements in how police do their jobs.

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, whose own agency is facing a Department of Justice inquiry into its use of deadly force, praised the move.

"My law enforcement colleagues as well as the speaker as well as our representatives have heard the voices of the community mention and say 'We want independent investigations of our critical incidents,' " she said.

What HB 2650 does not include is any sort of civilian input into these reviews. Bowers defended that decision, saying this is only about criminal investigations of use or intended use of deadly force. He said most civilians are not in a position to decide such issues, saying these investigations should be done "by professional people.”

Penzone said there are good reasons to limit who is involved.

"During the investigation we shouldn't have any outside forces influencing how investigators seek facts, interview witnesses, any of the elements of the investigation," he said.

And Williams said nothing in the legislation precludes such oversight such as the decision by the Phoenix council last year to create an Office of Accountability and Transparency.

Penzone said while he considers this "a significant first step," he acknowledged that what also will not fall under the measure are other activities by police that might violate laws or the civil rights of individuals.

"It doesn't mean that we've solved the world's problems," he said.

"It doesn't mean we've solved the problem of racism ... that aren't just an issue in law enforcement," Penzone said. "They're a social issue in the world."

And he said these issues have to be addressed "one step at a time."

The measure still needs approval of the full House.