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District Attorneys’ Guidelines for Police Shootings

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When a police officer shoots someone, the district attorney is almost always the person who decides if it's justified.

Now, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has recommendations for how to handle those sensitive investigations.

The 16 recommendations from the D.A.'s association don't necessarily break any new ground but solidify some "best practices."

Earlier this month at a home near Bloomsburg, police responded and shot a man inside his home. Within a few days, the Columbia County district attorney ruled the shooting justified following an investigation by state police.

In August last year, it was a deadly shooting in Pittston, and officers were cleared by Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis.

Salavantis applauds new recommendations from the association, the first of their kind in the country.

"The hope is it will help everyone believe in the system and make sure everyone’s independent and making the right determinations," said Salavantis.

Recent high-profile cases across the country led the district attorneys to develop 16 guidelines for investigating shootings involving the police. They include having an independent agency investigate the officer or officers, releasing the video if the shooting is ruled justified and withholding the officer's name if he or she is cleared of any wrongdoing.

"This is one of the ways we can further protect law enforcement when they have to get on the streets, which can be dangerous," she said.

Civil liberty advocates believe the investigations should go one step farther and have totally independent prosecutors making the final call, not local district attorneys.

"Because local district attorneys, whether it’s fair or not, can give the appearance of having too much of a connection with the local police who are being investigated," said Andy Hoover of the ACLU of PA.

Some see benefits to the new guidelines but are also concerned they could go too far beyond the scope of transparency.

"I think it will take away from trust by taking away information but I wouldn’t want to put officers at risk by giving out their name just because they were involved in a bad incident," said Daniel Mushat of Philadelphia.

From a political science standpoint, Dr. Kyle Kreider at Wilkes University thinks what will matter is how many of the recommendations are followed including if the officers' names will ever be released.

"I think there’s some debate whether one or more of these goes too far in that respect. I think the big issue is with naming of the police officers or the delaying name of police officer involved in the shooting of a suspect," said Dr. Kreider.

These recommendations for district attorneys are not mandatory each individual prosecutor can choose how he or she will handle the investigation.