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Blacks, Whites, Democrats and Republicans All Agree: America Needs Special Prosecutors to Handle Police Killings of Americans

eric-garner-i-cant-breathe-protestsEven across the races, there is a general consensus among Americans that when police officers are involved in killing American citizens, the matter should be handled by a special prosecutor, not the local prosecutor who works with the police on a daily basis, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The Post’s story on the poll mostly lamented the racial differences and political differences in how Americans view racism in the criminal justice system—2 in 3 white Republicans say minorities and whites are treated equally in the criminal justice system, but only 3 in 10 white Democrats agree with that view. Just 21 percent of African-Americans believe they are treated equally, while four in 10 Hispanics believe they are.

But there was a widespread consensus among Blacks and whites and Democrats and Republicans who were polled that the criminal justice system needs to look to special prosecutors in handling police-involved shootings. In the poll of 1,012 adults conducted earlier this month, 87 percent of the respondents support calling in an outside prosecutor to investigate such cases. In addition, 86 percent back the mandatory use of body cameras by police.

As protesters across the nation continue to express their outrage on a daily basis over the police killings of unarmed Black men and the failures of grand juries to hold the police accountable, many have been asking what systemic changes might come out of the anger and the protests.

Many activists and Black leaders have pointed to special prosecutors as a tangible solution that could bring about different results in police-involved killings. It is also a solution that has increasingly been called for by newspaper editorial boards, political commentators and legal experts.

Of course, it’s not a panacea. After all, it was a Angela Corey, a special prosecutor in Florida appointed by the governor, who failed to convict George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin.

But most observers agree that even if the special prosecutor system doesn’t always result in the conviction of police officers or white killers of unarmed Black males, it will at least go far in giving the public more confidence in a criminal justice system that is widely perceived as unfair and illegitimate, particularly in the Black community.

In countries such as France and Spain, cases of police shootings, in-custody deaths and official corruption are automatically handled by an outside official, called an investigating magistrate. New York state also had an automatic system to use special prosecutors, created in 1973 by Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller to deal solely with cases involving police corruption in New York City. The office prosecuted a significant number of police officers and even corrupt judges—but was dissolved by Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo and the New York state legislature in 1990 because they believed the office was no longer necessary.

Officials believe it is no coincidence that the number of prosecutions of corrupt police officers began to drop immediately after the office was shut down.

“It is evident that reduction in disciplinary actions parallels the abandonment of the special prosecutor’s office,” John Kenney, formerly the chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Criminal Law, wrote in a 1993 letter to the New York Times.

Legislators in states like Pennsylvania and New York have begun introducing legislation to create a mechanism to automatically have special prosecutors handle police killings.

But Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson is trying to circumvent the state-by-state process by introducing a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month to establish federal regulations dictating that special prosecutors handle cases in which police officers are accused of killing civilians. If states don’t comply, according to the bill, they would risk losing federal funding.

“There exists a symbiotic relationship between local prosecutors and the law enforcement officers who regularly testify in routine grand jury investigations,” the bill states. “The closeness of this relationship creates public suspicion that accused police officers receive preferential consideration from grand juries when they are subject to grand jury investigations…The American people have lost confidence in the secretive grand jury process when it is used to evaluate allegations of police misconduct. The loss of confidence in our system of justice leads to the undermining of the principles of equality and justice upon which this country was founded.”

The bill also would require the grand jury proceedings overseen by the special prosecutor to be open to the public when a crime was potentially committed by an officer in a use of deadly force. The closed-door nature of the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island has helped to dramatically reduce the public’s confidence in the system.

“The Governor shall use a random process to select the special prosecutor from among the prosecutors in the State, excluding the prosecutors of the locality in which the death took place,” the bill states.

“The protesters demand an end to what is perceived as unequal justice, and that those who are responsible for the use of excessive force be brought to justice,” Johnson said after introducing his bill. “They do not trust a secret grand jury system that is so clearly broken. My bill will help restore that trust. No longer will communities have to rely on the secret and biased grand jury process.”

The bill, co-sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), is expected to be taken up by Congress in January.


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