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How Special Prosecutors Can Help Bring Police to Justice

Giving authority to independent investigators is one way to increase police accountability
A plainclothes officer in Newark
A plainclothes officer in NewarkPhotograph by Philip Montgomery

In the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island, the cases of the police officers involved were referred to grand juries. This is standard procedure in the U.S., where district attorneys are responsible for making cases against cops when things go wrong. Sometimes, it works. On the same day that a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a fatal chokehold, a grand jury in Orangeburg, S.C., announced the indictment of the white former police chief of Eutawville on murder charges in the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Bernard Bailey outside the town hall in 2011. It was the third indictment of a police officer in South Carolina in four months. “We don’t know what brand of justice they serve in Ferguson, and we don’t know what brand of justice they’re serving in New York City, but here in South Carolina, we believe in the jury system,” said Carl Grant, a lawyer for the Bailey family, after the indictment was announced.

Often, the system fails. Local prosecutors work closely with police, relying on them to make cases and serve as witnesses, creating a conflict of interest for DAs when cops who do wrong. “It’s very difficult to ask prosecutors who depend on police every day to be the ones to arrest and prosecute police,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Irvine School of Law.