New York – Amid national debate over holding officers criminally accountable for killings by police, New York is giving such cases special consideration by appointing the attorney general to investigate them, for now.
The move comes after police officers weren’t criminally charged last year in deadly encounters with unarmed men in New York and elsewhere. Critics pressed to take such cases away from local district attorneys, arguing they didn’t have enough professional distance to investigate and prosecute police who help them build cases.
With lawmakers unable to agree on an approach as the legislative session ended, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday he’d use executive power to appoint Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for a year as special prosecutor for police killings.
“I don’t believe this is the perfect alternative, but I believe it is the best alternative at this time,” said Cuomo, adding that he’d keep working toward legislation next year.
Some advocates who called for reform are praising the move. But district attorneys say it usurps a role they believe they play fairly and honorably, and relatives of people killed in New York police encounters say the temporary measure doesn’t go far enough.
“We do not want to be exploited for the sake of politics and something that has little practical impact on ensuring justice for our communities,” said the families of nine slain people, including Eric Garner, whose chokehold death in New York City last year prompted widespread protests.
Around the country, special prosecutors sometimes handle police-misconduct probes. Maryland has a permanent special prosecutor for police wrongdoing and some other cases. New York state had a special office investigating New York City police corruption from 1972 to 1990.
But the idea gained new urgency after last year’s deaths of Garner and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Both were black, unarmed and killed in encounters with white officers whom grand juries declined to indict.
Critics questioned how local prosecutors had conducted the grand jury process, particularly after few details were made public about the Garner grand jury sessions. Extensive records were released about Brown’s case in Missouri, which has different public records laws.
Nonetheless, Missouri lawmakers this year weighed — but ultimately didn’t pass — several proposals to appoint special prosecutors in police killings.
Following the Garner case, Schneiderman asked Cuomo to give him the authority to investigate deaths at the hands of police. New York City’s elected public advocate, Letitia James, and some state lawmakers pushed for appointing special prosecutors in such cases.
Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons personally pressed Cuomo on the issue, rapper-actor Common joined a New York City Hall rally calling for special prosecutors and other changes, and rap star Jay Z also met with Cuomo to talk reform.
James called the yearlong special prosecutor appointment “a major step forward.” Schneiderman said he was disappointed that the legislature had not acted but added that his office would “handle these cases with the highest level of care and independence.”
District attorneys say they do the same and the state has no business taking over a responsibility they were elected to shoulder.
“There’s this false narrative out there that prosecutors turn their heads when the accused is a police officer, and that’s just not true,” said Frank Sedita III, the president of the state district attorneys’ association. He’s the DA in Buffalo-area Erie County, where a police officer is currently on trial in a theft case.
The former Staten Island DA who handled the Garner case, now-Rep. Daniel Donovan, continues to believe DAs should handle such cases unless there’s a specific conflict of interest, his office said. Current acting Staten Island DA Daniel Master declined to comment.
Indeed, local prosecutors in Baltimore and North Charleston, South Carolina, brought cases that produced indictments of officers in two high-profile police killings this year.