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“Who Should Investigate Police Abuse?”: When Local DA’s Investigate Local Police Officers, There Is An Inherent Conflict Of Interest

The national conversation about police abuse will shortly take a new turn. Following the failures of local grand juries to bring charges against the white police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in Staten Island, protesters around the country took to the streets. Then, after the murders of the New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn on December 21st, a fierce backlash against the anti-police protests began. The result is a sour standoff, with opposing sides united only in their sense of victimhood. Protesters shout “I can’t breathe,” and cops turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio—but now what?

To date, one serious proposal for reform has emerged. On December 8th, Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York, proposed that Governor Andrew Cuomo name him, Schneiderman, as an independent special prosecutor to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute police officers in any situation where they cause the death of a civilian. As Schneiderman noted in his letter to the governor, the proposal seeks to address a real problem. When local district attorneys investigate local police officers, there is an inherent conflict of interest. In virtually all usual circumstances, police and prosecutors are partners, working together to build cases against defendants. This is especially true in a place like Staten Island, where the elected district attorney, Dan Donovan, both works closely with the police and answers to many of them as his constituents. As Schneinderman noted, on the rare occasions when prosecutors investigate the police, even when all parties act with the best of intentions, “the question is whether there is public confidence that justice has been served, especially in cases where homicide or other serious charges against the accused officer are not pursued or are dismissed prior to a jury trial.” Cases, in other words, like those of the officers who killed Brown and Garner. (Cuomo has hedged in response to Schneiderman’s idea, saying that he wants to weigh a full package of reforms.)

Schneiderman’s proposal met with a fiercely negative response from an unexpected quarter. Kenneth Thompson, the newly elected district attorney in Brooklyn, blasted Schneiderman’s proposal as “unworkable” and an insult to the state’s sixty-two elected district attorneys. Thompson, a Democrat, is hardly a mouthpiece for his colleagues in law enforcement; he defeated an incumbent district attorney, in significant part, by criticizing the cozy relationship between police and prosecutors in the borough. In his objections to Schneiderman’s proposal, Thompson pointed to potential practical problems—saying that it would stretch the attorney general too thin, particularly if it came to include all accusations of police brutality, not just those that ended in death. But Thompson’s objections were also more profound. “As the duly elected district attorney of Brooklyn, I am more than able to thoroughly and fairly investigate any fatality of an unarmed civilian by a police officer,” Thompson said. Indeed, Thompson recently brought a police-brutality case against two officers, and is investigating the recent police-shooting death of an unarmed man in a housing project.

The conflict between Schneiderman and Thompson illustrates a paradox, even a contradiction, in the criminal-justice system. New York, like most states, has a regime of elected countywide prosecutors. The idea is that law enforcement should respond to the needs of the local community, and for the subjective needs of the community to be paramount. But the system also demands objectivity—an ideal of justice untainted by the special interests of the locals. This is the heart of the conflict over Schneiderman’s idea, and both sides can point to examples that prove their point. It is true that local prosecutors like Thompson have, on occasion, brought successful cases against local police officers. And outsiders, who are not subject to the usual checks and balances on prosecutors, can abuse their freedom. “When you start to talk about special prosecutors—do we really want another Ken Starr?” Frank Sedita, the Erie County District Attorney, asked in response to Schneiderman, referring to the federal independent counsel who led the investigation of President Bill Clinton. The risk, according to Sedita, is ending up with “somebody who is not accountable to the public and specifically not accountable to the citizens of that county.”

Schneiderman’s idea has considerable appeal; his judgment in the Eric Garner case would surely have had more credibility than the one rendered by Donovan. Still, special prosecutors are not necessarily good or bad. Like the locals they replace, they are only as good as the cases they bring, or refrain from bringing. That, ultimately, will rest on the good judgment of the individuals involved, and no one has yet figured out a way of putting the right person in place all the time.

 

By: Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, December 30, 2014

January 5, 2015 Posted by | District Attorney's, Police Abuse, Police Brutality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Two Grand Juries, The Same Disappointing Result”: The Criminal Justice System Is One Of The Last Bastions Of Blatant Racism

No expressions of sympathy or regret can resurrect Eric Garner, the New York City man killed by police in July. Garner died after an officer placed him in what appears to be a chokehold during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, an offense not usually regarded as a capital crime.

But, at the very least, officer Daniel Pantaleo (or his representatives) showed a spark of decency after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict him for any crime. “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” he said in a statement. “My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

That’s just one contrast to events in Ferguson, Missouri, where Officer Darren Wilson showed no hint of sympathy for teenager Michael Brown or his family. “I don’t think it’s haunting. It’s always going to be something that happened,” Wilson said in a televised interview.

There were other equally stark contrasts. While Brown’s response to Wilson will always be the subject of dispute, bystanders recorded video of Garner’s arrest and posted it on the Internet, where it went viral. There is no disputing Garner’s tragic last words as Pantaleo’s arm lingers around his neck: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Even Fox News’ bellicose Bill O’Reilly was moved to observe that Garner “didn’t deserve what happened to him.”

But the greatest contrast between the deaths of Garner and Brown may have been in the reactions of elected and civic leaders. Backed by its politicians, Ferguson’s police force responded to criticism of Brown’s death with excuses, equivocation and armored personnel carriers.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio took to the podium to express sympathy for Garner’s loved ones, and equally important, a simple shared humanity. Compassion. Understanding. Empathy. “This is now a national moment of grief, a national moment of pain,” he said. Members of Congress — liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats — joined to criticize the grand jury’s decision.

That matters. All citizens, regardless of color or creed or religion, want to believe that the people who govern them share their fears, their hopes, their aspirations. Or, at the very least, that their leaders can understand their frustrations.

Even now, that’s not always the case in the United States, especially when it comes to law and order. The criminal justice system is one of the last bastions of blatant racism, a tangled net of explicit prejudices and implicit biases, of rank stereotypes and unfair perceptions, a web that ensnares black men disproportionately. Countless studies conducted by experts have borne out the view held by so many black Americans: We do not stand equally before the bar of justice.

Black motorists are subjected to more traffic stops than white drivers. Black men and women are arrested more often for drug offenses, even though we are no more likely to be drug users than whites. And the use of the death penalty tilts against black defendants and devalues black lives: It is more likely to be meted out if the victim is not white.

Has there been progress? Of course there has. The nation’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general, is a black man. But the nation’s criminal justice system started out in a hellishly low place — where officials were complicit in lynchings, where the wealthy extracted unpaid labor from black men by having them arrested, where black crime victims were ignored. De Blasio referred to that unfortunate history: “We’re not dealing with years of racism leading up to it, or decades of racism — we are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day.”

For all the striking contrasts between the reactions to the deaths of Brown and Garner, there was one stunning consistency: Grand juries saw no evidence of wrongdoing by a white police officer who killed an unarmed black man. Bear in mind that a New York City medical examiner, citing “compression of his chest and prone position,” ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Still, a Staten Island grand jury found nothing to suggest that Pantaleo committed any criminal offense.

Some things haven’t changed at all.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Visiting Professor, The University of Georgia, School of Journalism; The National Memo, December 6, 2014

December 7, 2014 Posted by | African Americans, Criminal Justice System, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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