GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Although the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is responsible for looking into a wide variety of crimes, the most high-profile are often those involving a law enforcement officer firing their weapon.
“There’s no statute that requires the SBI to be called when we have a police shooting,” NCSBI Northern Piedmont District Special Agent in Charge Scott Williams said.
In most instances, Williams added, the agency is requested for assistance in the investigations, often by district attorneys, police chiefs, and sheriffs.
“For independence purposes, transparency purposes, so that they’re not investigating their own,” he said.
While nearly all agencies initiate internal investigations to determine if the officers involved in the shooting followed department policy, the SBI conducts an independent criminal investigation, Williams said, adding every agency across the state calls in the SBI for fatal officer-involved shootings.
“There are only two agencies in North Carolina that don’t call us if there’s a non-fatal [officer-involved shooting],” he said. “One being Greensboro, they investigate their non-fatal shootings, and the other being Charlotte, they investigate most of their non-fatal shootings.”
On June 14, Winston-Salem police say a suspect fired shots into one of the department’s substations, before leading officers on a chase to Hanes Park, where the suspect was shot and arrested.
“The lieutenant that called me, all he texted me was, ‘get ready,’” Williams recalled.
Investigators say they later found the suspect’s mother and grandmother had been killed in their homes, resulting in the suspect being charged with their murders. Williams’ agents were requested to assist with the investigation.
“We do the crime scenes that associate with the police shooting, and many times the local entities – especially when it’s the ones the size of Forsyth County and Winston-Salem – they’ll do the crime scenes on the secondary crimes,” Williams said.
Previously, on May 5, the SBI was called to Lockland Avenue in Winston-Salem, for a standoff which resulted in a house fire and the suspect ultimately being shot and killed.
On Feb. 5, Williams’ agents were called to High Point, where officers had been shot by a suspect barricaded in a home on West English Road. The gunman and a woman in the home were killed.
“Most of the ones around here, we’re on scene in an hour usually, tops,” Williams said.
Once on scene, agents interview officers, EMS personnel who transport a citizen or officers, and almost always get a court order for EMS and medical records of persons involved.
“We try to get the officer to sign a personnel review file, to be able to review their file, to see what their history is, if they have any complaints of excessive force,” Williams explained, in addition to reviewing an officer’s firearm scores.
Agents often attend autopsies for anyone killed in the shootings.
“When that autopsy’s complete, that day we’ll go ahead and interview the pathologist that conducted the autopsy,” Williams said.
One of the most important pieces of evidence in recent investigations, Williams said, is often law enforcement-worn body camera footage. The SBI gets a copy of the body camera footage to review, however, due to North Carolina law, that footage is not public record and is not released to the public unless a judge orders it be.
“It’s a balance we’re trying to do between the DA reviewing the case file and releasing it to the public,” Williams said.
It is not the SBI’s responsibility to charge an officer involved in a shooting.
“We do not clear, or charge, or recommend charging of an officer,” Williams said. “We just turn the file over to the DA and let them make the decision.”
While the district attorney often makes the decision to charge or clear officers, sometimes they decide to bring the case to a grand jury.
“A lot of times you only hear about the SBI in police shootings, so [people] really think that might be all we do,” Williams said.
So far this year, Williams’ district has investigated five officer-involved shootings, compared to a total of about 150 cases they’ve handled.
“It’s a small number, but an important aspect of what we do,” he added.
In addition to more common investigations such as drugs and human trafficking, the SBI also assists with in-custody death investigations, such as people dying while being arrested, transported or at the jail. However, as Williams explains, such investigations often take longer periods of time.
“The one factor that is most important most of the time in the death in custody cases, which is why they take a lot longer sometimes than officer-involved shootings, is that we have to wait on the toxicology report,” Williams said.