BY MICHAEL RICONDA
After a grand jury opted not to indict the police officer accused of killing a Staten Island man with an illegal chokehold, not only police but the grand jury system have become targets of reform.
As one of the epicenters of recent debates over police misconduct, New York City has seen some of the first initiatives. Shortly after the decision, NY Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced he would initiate a $35 million program to retrain 22,000 members of the NYPD. The three day program, which will begin this month, would cover police-community interactions and include a refresher on de-escalation techniques.
DeBlasio stated in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that as a public executive, he wanted to “respect the process” while improving accountability and mending broken relationships between police and communities.
“We have to have an honest conversation about the problem that has caused parents to feel their children may be in danger in their dynamics with police when the police are there to protect them,” DeBlasio said. “We have to transcend that. And in this city, we’ve tried to begin that process in earnest with a series of policy changes that will really reach people on the streets.”
DeBlasio has been under fire from police advocates for a perceived lack of support for the NYPD and over-eagerness to reform. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, who argued previously that NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s take down of Garner did not constitute a “choke hold” and was acceptable police procedure, scorned DeBlasio’s December 3 statements and suggested that they constituted a political betrayal.
“What police officers felt yesterday after that press conference is that they were thrown under the bus,” Pantaleo argued in a public statement. “That [NYPD officers] were out there doing a difficult job in the middle of the night, protecting the rights of those to protest, protecting our sons and daughters and the mayor was behind microphones like this throwing them under the bus.”
Aside from the police response in the Garner case-characterized by critics as excessive-attention has also been focused on the grand jury system. In New York State, prosecutors must seek an indictment from a grand jury by presenting evidence and eyewitness testimony. The grand jury then meets in secret before deciding whether to indict.
However, critics have called the process skewed and stated it allows prosecutors too much sway. During the proceedings, evidence and eyewitness testimony are presented by the prosecutor, but no case is made by a defense counsel and no cross-examination is conducted, leaving the prosecutor with broad power to sway the grand jury’s opinion.
Secrecy has also been at issue. Though a limited request was made by Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan to disclose details on the decision, he only requested basic information such as the duration of the proceedings and number of eyewitnesses and failed to ask for detailed records of transcripts or exhibits.
The New York Civil Liberties Union made a motion for a more detailed disclosure. Their request is currently under consideration by Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Rooney.
Officials on the state level have already indicated they will examine the process. On December 8, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman formally requested that Governor Andrew Cuomo issue an executive order to grant state prosecutors the authority to investigate and pursue cases which involve killings of unarmed civilians by police officers.
“While several worthy legislative reforms have been proposed, the Governor has the power to act today to solve this problem. I strongly encourage him to take action now,” Schneiderman said.
In response to the statement, Cuomo’s office said the request was under review. Cuomo also expressed a willingness to review the criminal justice system during next legislative session, during which issues related to special prosecutors, diversity issues, body cameras, grand jury reform could be discussed.
“I think we should look at the whole system,” Mr. Cuomo said during a radio interview. “This is not just Eric Garner. It’s not just Missouri. It’s bigger and broader.”
Another option which has been floated by reform advocates and pols is the mandatory use of special prosecutors, who are considered less likely to be pressured into the pursuit of an indictment or non-indictment during grand jury proceedings.
A bill proposed by Assembly Democrats would create a separate division within the Attorney General’s Office for reviews of police killings of unarmed men, effectively establishing independent prosecutions.
However, similar legislation,sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Manhattan), failed in the Senate multiple times between 2003 and 2009, a possible indicator that the likelihood of its passage during the next session is low.
Failure of such bills has largely been due to a lack of Republican support. Senate Republican Leader In recent statements on the verdict, Dean Skelos expressed support for law enforcement and a desire to maintain an effective justice system, but did not indicate his position on the new bill.
“The job of law enforcement is very difficult,” Skelos said. “It is important that all New Yorkers feel confident in our criminal justice system and that they believe that we are all treated equally under the law.”
Reform has become a priority as far up as the White House. In response to the earlier killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson, President Barack Obama requested congressional approval of $263 million police body camera program on Dec. 1.
Obama has also indicated he will tighten standards on police use of surplus military gear, a point of contention after images of heavily-armed and armored police in Ferguson, Missouri emerged after a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michal Brown. However, the programs themselves will not be discontinued.
Two bills have also been submitted for consideration on the federal level. Rep. Hank Johnson (D – Georgia) proposed the Grand Jury Reform Act on December 11. If passed, this bill would would make some federal funding contingent upon appointment of special prosecutors for such instances of misconduct.
Under this bill, the grand jury process would also be revamped. Public hearings would occur in front of a judge, who would issue a legal finding. That finding and a prosecutor’s recommendation would then be submitted to a local district attorney before a decision to indict is made.
The second bill, the Police Accountability Act, would raise violent crimes committed by officers to the level of federal offenses, allowing more opportunities for intervention by the Justice Department.
Legally, the Justice Department is often limited in such cases. The DOJ’s purview only covers prosecutions for civil rights violations, which are difficult to prove due to their relatively high standards of evidence. Nonetheless, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch indicated an investigation is underway into both the Garner and Brown cases.