By James Queally
New York state's top law enforcement official asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant him the power to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians after a pair of grand jury decisions in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., led to violence, protests and caused many to question the way police-involved slayings are reviewed.
In a letter sent to Cuomo on Monday, Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman asked for the power to independently investigate the killing of any unarmed civilian by a police officer in the state, effectively removing local district attorneys from the equation.
"A common thread in many of these cases is the belief of the victim's family and others that the investigation of the death, and the decision whether to prosecute, have been improperly and unfairly influenced by the close working relationship between the county District Attorney and the police officers he or she works with and depends on every day," Schneiderman wrote.
The move, which was supported by at least two dozen elected officials in New York, follows controversial grand jury decisions in the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Staten Island.
In a statement, Cuomo's communications director Melissa Derosa said the governor will consider Schneiderman's proposal.
"When people begin to lose faith in the criminal justice system, reform must follow," the statement read. "As the Governor 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."
Garner was allegedly selling loose cigarettes on a street corner in July when he was approached by a group of city police officers, including Daniel Pantaleo. When Pantaleo attempted to arrest him, Garner began to argue with him, and Pantaleo placed him in what many have described as a chokehold, a maneuver outlawed by most major U.S. police departments because they have been linked to a slew of suspect deaths.
A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo last week, just 10 days after a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown. Those decisions set off protests nationwide, and many have criticized the decision to allow Richmond County Dist. Atty. Daniel Donovan and St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to prosecute both cases because of their perceived ties to the departments involved.
In a statement, Schneiderman said he did not doubt the objectivity of his fellow prosecutors, but believes it is impossible to restore public trust in the criminal justice system without enacting investigations that are above suspicion.
"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," the statement read.
A spokesman for Donovan said his office had no comment on the attorney general's announcement.
Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Ken Thompson, who is currently investigating an NYPD officer for a shooting that left 28-year-old Akai Gurley dead in a stairwell of an apartment complex last month, released a statement criticizing Schneiderman's suggestion on Monday afternoon.
"As the duly elected District Attorney of Brooklyn, I am adamantly opposed to the request by the New York State Attorney General for authority to investigate and potentially prosecute alleged acts of police brutality," Thompson said in a statement. "No one is more committed to ensuring equal justice under the law than I am."
Schneiderman's move is the second proposed change to the grand jury process in New York in the wake of the Garner decision. Last week, two state legislators said they will introduce a bill that would force district attorneys to make all evidence and testimony presented to a grand jury public after the proceedings are complete.
Currently, district attorneys are the only people with legal standing to make that information public in New York, and only with a judge's consent. Donovan asked a judge to allow him to release a limited amount of information about the Garner grand jury last week.
The witness testimony presented to the grand jury, Garner's autopsy report, the charges Donovan asked them to consider and the makeup of the 23-member panel all remain secret.
Wayne Fisher, a former police officer and assistant attorney general in New Jersey who now serves as a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, said outside reviews of law enforcement-involved killings are an obvious solution to the perceived lack of faith in the current system.
"As a general rule, I think external review of police shootings is an absolute necessity. The only question then is who is best positioned in that state to conduct the investigation," Fisher said. "If moving it one step further from the local prosecutor removes it one step further from the police agency involved, then I think that's a good idea."
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