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Policing the police: Deadly force team maintains objectivity in internal probes

LAWRENCEVILLE - Sgt. Victor Pesaresi summons the dry tone of Dragnet's Joe Friday when describing his professional objectives:

"We're fact-finders. We find the facts, and we present those facts," he said. "That's what it comes down to. There have been times when people violated things, and it is what it is. We present what it is."

Pesaresi helps lead the Gwinnett County Police Department's deadly force investigation team, those who oversee the criminal side of internal investigations. With a roster of 14, the team is built with seasoned homicide detectives who handle not only their own internal probes, but often those of Gwinnett's municipal agencies and the Sheriff's Department.

The team has been thrust to the forefront of public consciousness lately in controversial cases involving suspect-police clashes.

As a general rule, some combination of the team is deployed anytime an officer fires a weapon or is fired upon. They review any use of deadly force by officers - including accidents, but not animal deaths - when smaller agencies elsewhere in Georgia may rely on the GBI.

In the last three years, the team has handled 17 cases involving police-related shootings, with roughly half (9) being fatalities. In 2009, all four police-related shootings have been fatal.

Of those 17 cases, none have resulted in terminations, resignations or criminal prosecution of Gwinnett police, though some remain under review.

"Most (cases) end up that the facts are a justifiable shooting, and we'll just send it to (the District Attorney's Office) for review," Pesaresi said. "If it is a clear violation of a criminal law, we'll ... make charges. We'll get warrants ourselves."

The latest case to fall under the team's discretion involves a mother and daughter killed by a Gwinnett officer July 21 in Duluth - shootings decried by family members as excessive use of force.

Officer Lyndsey Perry fatally shot Penny Schwartz, 51, who was suicidal and pointed a gun at the officer, police said. Schwartz's 75-year-old mother, Barbara Baker, shot once in the chest, also died.

Police haven't said how Baker came in the line of fire. Family members believe she stepped in to protect her daughter.

Perry, a 10-year veteran, has since been cleared to return to active duty, though the case remains under review, officials said this week.

Two other police-related shootings this summer have landed on the deadly force team's desks.

A Sheriff's Department deputy fatally shot a Snellville man in his front yard following a hostage situation June 4, an action Sheriff Butch Conway later called appropriate. And in July, three undercover Gwinnett officers fatally shot an armed suspect during a cocaine raid at a Lawrenceville home. Each officer involved has returned to active duty.

All three cases remain open and are not subject to open records laws, officials said.

Objective: objectivity

Unlike Gwinnett police units staffed by specific officers - such as the task forces that handle highway traffic and gang activity - the deadly force team's daily routine differs from their on-call objectives, in the way SWAT teams flock to crisis situations.

Despite the proximity to the very people they may be investigating, Lt. Troy Hutson said the team is trained to be unbiased.

"We're willing to prosecute our own," Hutson said. "We're not going to cover up anything."

Hutson makes a clear distinction between his team's function and that of the Office of Professional Standards, which investigates policy violations. Investigations by the latter group have recently led to:

· The resignation of a 24-year-veteran lieutenant said to be stealing property from the department;

· Resignations of two sergeants and a corporal after the corporal allegedly shocked a Waffle House employee with a Taser in an unprovoked attack in February;

· The arrest and resignation in July last year of an 18-year-veteran sergeant who police said illegally ran an auto sales business.

Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said the department takes illegal activity and policy violations within its ranks "personally."

"You'll see through our history that we've always remained objective," Schiralli said. "We've always prided ourselves on that."

Pesaresi said in most officer-related shootings the employee in question is not required to report to work for up to three days. Afterward, most officers are placed on administrative leave, which might entail taking reports over the phone or assisting with internal office duties.

The flow chart of reprimands escalates from there to termination and criminal prosecution.

If no policy or law is found to be violated, the officer has to be cleared by a county-provided psychologist before returning to duty, Schiralli said.

Most investigations are wrapped within two months, provided that GBI lab delays don't prolong them, Pesaresi said. The District Attorney's Office, helmed by Danny Porter, inexorably has final say.

But Pesaresi scoffs at the notion his team is composed of rubber-stampers.

"I take my job seriously, and I do it as professionally as possible," he said. "They are officers, but they're also involved in an incident. That's what I investigate - the incident, not the officer."