Should Special Prosecutors Investigate Killings By Police?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
From Washington, D.C., to Oakland, California, protesters took to the streets over the weekend demanding changes to a criminal justice system they say is broken. After the cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the protesters are saying they've lost faith in the ability of local district attorneys to fairly investigate and prosecute cases of killings by police. And as NPR's Joel Rose reports, in New York, there's a growing call to appoint special prosecutors for such cases.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
CROWD: (Chanting) I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Protesters are mounting 11 consecutive days of demonstrations in New York City, one for each time Eric Garner said I can't breathe during the video recording of his arrest. Nova Felder of Queen says he doesn't trust local district attorneys to investigate and prosecute the cops.
NOVA FELDER: They're too close. They work with these police officers every day to convict all types of criminals. They're incestuous - everybody watches "SVU," everybody watches "Law And Order." We know how they work together - they're one in the same. A DA is just a cop with a suit.
ROSE: It's a concern that was also raised by Eric Garner's widow after a Staten Island grand jury did not indict the officer who put her husband in a chokehold. Here's Esaw Garner on NBC's "Today Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY SHOW")
ESAW GARNER: As far as, like, the police and the DA and - there was no sincerity in his eyes from day one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: That erosion of trust and confidence must be addressed, and it must be addressed now.
ROSE: Eric Schneiderman is New York's attorney general. He recently sent a letter to the governor asking for the authority to appoint special prosecutors to handle cases of killings by police.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCHNEIDERMAN: It is time to acknowledge that the public has lost confidence in this part of our criminal justice system.
ROSE: Many states, including Missouri, give attorney generals or governors broad authority to intervene in local cases when they decide it's necessary. Though experts say New York would be the first to give the state's attorney general blanket authority over all cases of police killings. But local prosecutors argue that's just not necessary. Frank Sedita is the district attorney in Buffalo and head of the state's DA association.
FRANK SEDITA: We're not a rubber stamp for the police. To broadly assert that prosecutors cannot perform their constitutional duties in these kind of cases is deeply insulting to prosecutors.
ROSE: And there's no guarantee that a special prosecutor would get different results than local district attorneys. Eugene O'Donnell is a former NYPD lieutenant and prosecutor who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
O'DONNELL: We give the police broad power. That's the central issue. The law in this state and in most states is going to make it almost impossible to convict an on-duty police officer.
ROSE: Especially, O'Donnell says, if they claim to be acting in self-defense. But the legal implications are only part of this discussion. Arnold Kriss is a former Brooklyn prosecutor who's now in private practice. He says district attorneys have a major perception problem.
ARNOLD KRISS: The district attorneys are political figures. They run for office every four years. They take endorsements from law enforcement unions. They still do their job, but it gives the public the perception of this relationship.
ROSE: If special prosecutors can help rebuild public trust in the system, Kriss says, there's no harm in trying. But some district attorneys disagree.
KEN THOMPSON: It gives the impression that we can't handle these cases, and we can.
ROSE: Ken Thompson is the DA in Brooklyn.
THOMPSON: I understand people are concerned because of what happened in Ferguson and in response to the Garner decision. But I don't think the answer is to take these cases from the local DAs, especially from me. The people of Brooklyn, they voted for me to keep them safe from all crimes, including those of police brutality.
ROSE: Thompson's relationship with the NYPD is about to get a lot of scrutiny. He's handling the case of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed last month by a rookie police officer in the dimly lit stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. Police are calling it an accident. Thompson says he'll impanel a grand jury to hear the case. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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Correction Dec. 15, 2014
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Missouri is among states that give attorneys general or governors broad authority to intervene in local cases. In fact, Missouri is not among those states.