N.Y. Attorney General Seeks to Probe Killings by PoliceChristie Smythe
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he’s seeking special authority to investigate killings by police of unarmed civilians, a move he said is needed to restore public confidence after the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner.
Schneiderman said he sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo requesting an order granting that authority until the state Legislature is able to decide the matter. The order would apply only to future incidents, the attorney general said.
“It’s a simple, immediate and effective solution,” Schneiderman, a Democrat, said at a news conference in Manhattan today. The move would “show the leadership of New York state on an issue of national importance,” he said.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of New York after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the choking death of Garner. Earlier, nationwide protests also followed a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was unarmed.
The deaths of Brown and Garner have served as flash points amid long-simmering tensions over police treatment of racial minorities, prompting calls for reforms such as police body cameras, more training and tougher handling of charges against cops.
In his letter to Cuomo, Schneiderman said that New Yorkers feel it’s “unfair to charge a local district attorney with the task of investigating and prosecuting” police officers with whom the DA’s office may have a close working relationship.
Schneiderman said that current laws make it unlikely that local district attorneys would be asked to stand aside when police officers are facing possible indictments. The governor, however, is empowered to supersede a district attorney by having the attorney general to take over the case, he said.
Cuomo, also a Democrat, is considering Schneiderman’s proposal in the context of a review of the state’s criminal-justice system that the governor said last week he will undertake, Melissa DeRosa, a Cuomo spokeswoman, said by e-mail.
“When people begin to lose faith in the criminal-justice system, reform must follow,” DeRosa said. “Meaningful change will require thoughtful dialogue and a real top-to-bottom review with criminal-justice experts, community stakeholders, and police, prosecutorial and judicial representatives.”
Douglas Auer, spokesman for the Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr., whose office brought the Garner case to the grand jury, declined to comment.
In his letter, the attorney general said that while the “overwhelming majority of my fellow prosecutors” are capable of setting aside personal biases, “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 trial by jury.”
A broad swath of city, state and other elected officials spoke in support of Schneiderman’s effort, and many stood beside him and delivered remarks of their own at the news conference today.
“This prospective proposal, I think, will go a long way in assuring the public,” New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said.
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said that “our system works best when we are focused on justice and not political turf.”
Not all New York officials were on board with Schneiderman’s plan, and criticized the notion that local prosecutors may not appear impartial.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who is convening a grand jury to investigate the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man who was shot by a police officer, said in a statement that he’s “adamantly opposed” to the attorney general’s request.
“Acts of police brutality are not only crimes against the individual victim, but also are attacks on the communities in which they occur,” Thompson said. “Local prosecutors who are elected to enforce the laws in those communities should not be robbed of their ability to faithfully and fairly do so in cases where police officers shoot, kill or injure someone unjustly.”
Gurley, 28, was shot by a probationary police officer in a stairwell of a public housing complex in Brooklyn at about 11:15 p.m. Nov. 20, according to police.
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents police officers, said in a statement today that “there is absolutely no reason to alter the existing system because if the rule of law and rule of evidence as they stand in the state of New York are followed dispassionately and honestly, then the outcome will be right and just regardless of what office handles a case.”
According to a transcript, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday that he’s “completely open to discussing” the possible use of a special prosecutor in such instances.
“But be aware for what you ask for. Special prosecutors who have been reported in the past are accountable to no one,” unlike elected district attorneys, he said.