Going to Their Turf

Tim Harris is finding a way to bridge communication gaps between the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office and area police departments.
The Tulsa County District Attorney is meeting with them on their turf — the local police department. They talk about issues between agencies and procedures that help both sides do their jobs better.
And what he and local law enforcement officials are finding is that miscommunication exists on both sides — from when cases are investigated and whether or cases are accepted or rejected for prosecution — often because of a lack of understanding all procedures.
Harris admits that he went to the police departments to clear the record and show the accomplishments of his office during the past eight years.
‘‘I took the gloves off,’’ he said. ‘‘I went to their office with an olive branch to help get a better understanding of what they felt might be wrong.
‘‘The response to these ideas has been overwhelmingly positive and exceeded my wildest expectations. I admit I went into these meetings pretty tense, but I wanted to find a way to be more effective at all levels.’’
The reality was there were many times officers filed reports and cases were prosecuted, he said. But what the officers remembered most was the case that wasn’t filed.
‘‘We came to understand that there would be times we wouldn’t agree on all cases,’’ he continued. ‘‘But there would be thousands of future cases when we would be in total agreement.’’
His record as a district attorney was challenged during the recent primary election and Harris did not receive the endorsement of any Fraternal Order of Police organizations in that election.
But more than setting the record straight, Harris said everyone has a better understanding of both jobs.
He recalled his early days as an assistant prosecutor with no experience when he worked with veteran police officers.
‘‘I had the law degree, but they understood the real world,’’ Harris said. ‘‘It was a humbling, but learning experience working with those police veterans.’’
The district attorney realized his assistants didn’t understand what goes on in the field or the scope of work required when police are investigating a crime.
As a result, Harris has relaxed his ‘‘ride along’’ rule for assistant district attorneys with the admonition that they only are observers, not investigators, and they cannot interfere with those working a crime scene.
The difficulty comes, he said, when one realizes that district attorney personnel generally are in court from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. each day. These people also have families and responsibilities outside the office, so personal time is limited.
Likewise, Harris is inviting police officers to attend a full day in court, sitting at the table with the prosecutors to see what is happening to their case.
When investigating officers see how a defense attorney can unravel their work, they better understand why ever I must be dotted and every T crossed in their report. This applies whether the process is in the preliminary hearing or at a trial that goes before a jury.
Unfortunately, he added, these people also generally must do this on their own time generally because of department manpower shortages.
The experience for both sides provides a wealth of knowledge, Harris continued. Members of the district attorney’s staff learn how to ask better questions. Investigating officers learn how to be more attentive to detail, describing the scene and building a better foundation for a case.
These extremely detailed reports can make the difference cases are prosecuted and witnesses become uncooperative. This is particularly true in domestic violence cases where the person complaining ‘‘falls in love’’ with her boyfriend again and doesn’t want to see him go to jail.
Police also complained about the lack of communication when phone calls weren’t returned by assistant district attorneys.
Most officers didn’t realize the court schedule these people maintain each day, he said. They also didn’t know there might be 50 messages needing a response. Many would leave a name and telephone number with a request for the call back.
‘‘I am telling law enforcement that if they need to contact this office with questions they should contact the Victim Witness advocate and provide the specific information they are wanting,’’ Harris said. These answers can be researched before the return call is made, saving time for both parties.
Police departments also are receiving the names, telephone numbers, pagers, cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses of district attorney personnel so contact can more easily be made.
Arrangements also have been made to exchange updated personnel lists every six months.
‘‘I discovered we were working with personnel lists that were 18-months old when we started making the various communication forms available,’’ Harris added.
In addition, assistant district attorneys living in various communities are the direct contact with law enforcement in their home town.
Harris feels this will provide a more personal contact at all levels and enhance the ability of his office to file and prosecute cases.
That continuity will help when cases are prosecuted, Harris said. Top prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office have been formed into a major crimes unit. They are responsible for handling a case from the beginning when it is file to the end when the person either is convicted or freed from custody. That person will know the status of a case at all times.
Police departments also have been provided with standard jury instructions that prosecutors must review when filing a case.
If investigating officers miss any point, it is unlikely the case will be filed or successfully prosecuted, he said. These instructions have been set down by the Oklahoma legislature, not by the district attorneys office.
‘‘My goal is to help law enforcement understand we are working together with the same goal of protecting the public,’’ Harris said. Hopefully, the officer will understand when there is insufficient evidence to bring a case to be prosecuted and not tell the victim ‘‘that damn DA won’t file the case because they can’t get a conviction.’’



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