What is the Eastern Idaho Critical Incident Task Force?
IDAHO FALLS — During one week in February, law enforcement in eastern Idaho shot five people, four of whom died as a result of their injuries.
That number is unprecedented in such short a span of time in eastern Idaho. In fact, since 2000, Idaho averaged only about 3.5 officer-involved shootings per year, according to the database provided by the Idaho State Police Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
But the abnormal rise in officer-involved shootings in 2021 has led many residents to question how these cases are handled — and who does the investigating?
The answer is a relatively obscure entity known as the Eastern Idaho Critical Incident Task Force. It’s a multi-agency organization that includes members from a variety of law enforcement offices in eastern Idaho. It was created several years ago as an independent investigative body primarily to look into instances where a law enforcement officer has to use deadly force.
“When an agency has a critical incident, like an officer-involved shooting, they’ll call on this task force to come and investigate,” Idaho Falls Police spokeswoman Jessica Clements said. “The task force does the investigation. They assemble a team for that specific investigation, and that team includes someone from multiple agencies, but it does not include anyone from the involved agency.”
By excluding any officers or employees of the agency involved in the shooting, the task force hopes to keep their investigation free of partiality or inside influence.
“Nobody wants the same police department investigating their incident,” Clements explained. “It’s meant to be an unbiased, impartial investigation.”
Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office’s spokesman Sgt. Bryan Lovell seconded Clements.
“It’s all about independent people doing the investigative pieces of that so there’s no conflict of interest between the jurisdiction where it happened and anyone that may be in the agency that was involved in it,” he said. “Where you’ve got a wide variety of agencies that have a wide variety of experience if you need someone that’s experienced in a certain area you’ve probably got several different entities to choose from.”
After any officer-involved shooting, whether or not the victim of the shooting survived, the highest-ranking officer on the site will secure the scene and wait for the task force to arrive. Once the task force arrives, one agency will be chosen as the lead investigator. Often, the agency involved in the shooting can request which one takes charge.
For example, if an Idaho Falls Police Department officer uses deadly force, the agency generally asks the Idaho State Police to take the lead conducting the investigation, according to Clements.
“The Idaho State Police will send a couple of detectives, however many they can or they need, depending on the situation, and then maybe Bingham will send someone, Rexburg PD may send someone, and then they all divvy up the responsibilities of the investigation. Who’s going to interview witnesses? Who’s going to do the crime scene analysis? Who’s going to attend the autopsy? All those types of things.” Clements said.
“And then they will collectively come together to compare notes and make sure the investigation’s been done. They’ll all compile reports, and the lead agency will make sure it’s all completed, and then they turn the results of that investigation over to a prosecutor,” she said.
Regardless of which agency used deadly force or which agency leads the investigation, one of the goals of the task force is to create a consistent process across the region, Clements said. That way, while ultimately the prosecutor decides whether an officer who used deadly force committed a crime, the task force handles each case as a criminal one.
“Not everyone realizes this but officer-involved shootings are all investigated as a criminal issue regardless of the scenario that occurred,” Clements said. “For example, if someone died in the situation, it’s conducted as a possible homicide investigation. What they look at was ‘was it legally justified or not.’ But the task force does not make that call, but they just have the expertise to conduct a homicide investigation.”
According to Idaho statute, officers are legally justified to use deadly force in three specific situations. The first applies to those officers who carry out the death penalty sentence, and the third focuses on escaped inmates or fleeing suspects. The second, most commonly relevant to police at any given crime scene, states that homicide is justifiable when “reasonably necessary in overcoming actual resistance to the execution of some legal process, or in the discharge of any other legal duty including suppression of riot or keeping and preserving the peace.”
The statute goes on to clarify that use of deadly force is not justified “in overcoming actual resistance unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the resistance poses a threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to other persons.”
After receiving the report from the task force, the prosecutor on the case determines whether the actions of the officer-involved meet those criteria for justified use of force or not. If the prosecutor decides the officer’s actions were not justified, then criminal charges — such as murder or aggravated battery — will be filed.
Regardless of the prosecutor’s decision, the agency responsible for the use of force will often conduct its own internal investigation, which may hold the officer involved to a different, more stringent standard. In the Idaho Falls Police Department, for example, just because an act is legally justified does not necessarily mean it doesn’t violate department protocols, according to Clements.
In such a case, it would be possible for an officer-involved in a shooting to be fired from the department but not charged with a crime.
Although the Eastern Idaho Critical Incident Task Force has been especially busy in 2021, they have been investigating for several years across the region. And the idea for such a task force dates back much farther.
Lovell explained the history behind the organization.
“For decades there’s been a thing called the Tri-County Sheriff’s Association, and it started out with three counties, and I think it’s grown to 16 or 18 eastern Idaho counties. Long ago sheriffs got together and determined there was a need to have some mutual agreements to share resources, to contract some things out when it involved their own people, and so this Tri-County Sheriffs Association came from that, and then it grew.”
Now, there are several occasions that trigger joint jurisdictional investigative teams, including the Eastern Idaho Critical Incident Task Force. Currently, the task force includes nearly all the cities and counties in this half of the state, according to Lovell.
Even for citizens who fully understand the components and necessity of a task force, one common question the public often still has about officer-involved shootings, according to both Clements and Lovell, is why it can take weeks or even months to finish the investigation.
“They are very thorough investigations,” Clements explained. “The loss of human life is a very serious matter, and nobody takes that lightly. So it deserves to be very thoroughly investigated.”