mykeystrokes.com

"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“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

“Free Spirits With No Accountability”: 179 People Killed By NYPD, 1 Cop Conviction, No Jail Time

Over the last 15 years, NYPD officers have killed at least 179 people, according to a new investigation.

The New York Daily News found that in only three of those incidents, the officer involved was indicted and only once was the cop convicted.

In that one instance, when ex-officer Bryan Conroy was convicted in 2005 of criminally negligent homicide for killing Ousmane Zongo, Conroy didn’t serve any jail time.

Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, defended the NYPD officer’s actions.

“When there is a life-or-death situation on the street, be it an armed robbery, a homicidal maniac on the street or someone driving a vehicle in a dangerous and potentially deadly way, it is New York City police officers who step in and take the risk away from the public and put it on themselves,” Lynch said in a statement. “Our work has saved tens of thousands of lives by assuming the risk and standing between New Yorkers and life-threatening danger.”

To be sure, some of the incidents catalogued by the Daily News involved the justified use of deadly force by officers.

But, holding cops accountable when they are not justified in killing someone is difficult, because often the prosecutors tasked with bringing charges against officers also rely on good relationships with police to do their day-to-day work. DA’s also count on endorsements from police unions when they run for re-election.

The recent decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner chokehold case, has set off calls for laws requiring special prosecutors in cases involving possible police misconduct.

The idea behind any proposed legislation would be to keep local district attorneys out of cases where they might be biased in favor of the police department they work with regularly.

But some, like panelists involved in a recent Democracy Now discussion, said such reforms have been sought for years and have little chance of becoming law, at least at the federal level.

Harry Siegel, a columnist for the Daily News, pointed out that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who recently said special prosecutors could be necessary in some cases, had the chance to appoint a special prosecutor in the Garner, case but didn’t.

“I would note that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s now mumbling about all sorts of reforms, had the opportunity to appoint a special prosecutor here,” Siegel said on Democracy Now. “Andrew here, who’s now outraged by where we’re at, allowed us to get to this point.”

 

By: Simon McCormick, The Huffington Post, December 8, 2014

December 9, 2014 Posted by | Justifiable Homicide, NYPD, Police Shotings | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Badge Does Not Confer Credibility”: Bias Can Strain An Already Difficult Standard In Prosecuting Police

Average people find it difficult to place themselves in the shoes of police officers who live everyday knowing their next call could be their last. So when faced with a shooting by a police officer in questionable circumstances, they give deference to the officer’s decisions.

Jurors usually find that such officers reasonably believed the slain person posed a threat of serious bodily harm or death, justifying deadly force under legal standards.

Prosecutors are keenly aware of this tendency and know they will have difficulty prosecuting such cases. It would be hard, however, to create an alternative legal standard that could better ensure both an officer’s right to safety and the individual’s right to be free from excessive force.

Many minority citizens fear that jurors’ racial biases expand the notion of when it is reasonable for an officer to use deadly force. Indeed, one of the first questions many commentators asked when the decision was announced in the Michael Brown shooting was whether the grand jurors who declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him to death, were split along racial lines.

Perceptions of racial bias undermine the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, splitting citizens along racial lines when a white police officer kills an unarmed racial minority.

While we cannot eliminate the possibility for bias in prosecutions, we can make the process more transparent. Local prosecutors should not be faced with the choice of bringing charges against members of the police departments they rely on every day. These cases should automatically be referred to the state attorney general’s office or a special prosecutor who does not have the same perceived conflict of interest.

Jurors should be given clear instructions that an officer’s testimony carries the same weight as that of any other witness and that a badge does not confer credibility.

Criminal prosecutions, however, are not the most effective way to address systemic problems in a department because they focus solely on the actions of an individual officer and not on the organizational culture that likely shaped that conduct. To force broader changes in police practices, advocates should focus on institutional factors that encourage police misconduct, such as the failure to identify, supervise and discipline officers who are prone to misconduct.

 

By: Kami Chavis Simmons, Former Federal Prosecutor, Professor and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University School of Law; Room for Debate, The New York Times, November 25, 2014

November 30, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Grand Juries, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

%d bloggers like this: