Councilmembers Want Special Prosecutors to Lead Cop Killing Investigations

March 13, 2015
Jon Campbell
Village Voice

A group of fourteen progressive City Council members have signed a letter asking Governor Andrew Cuomo to take the investigation out of the hands of local district attorneys any time police-related killings occur.

On Thursday, elected officials, community activists, and the mothers of two young men killed by police in years past gathered at City Hall to push for what they view as a key police reform.

"For too long, this department has been failing mothers," said Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was killed in an encounter with NYPD officers in 1994. "For too long, they've allowed the police to do what they want. For too long, they haven't been held accountable." Anthony Baez died when an officer used a chokehold during an arrest attempt, and his case was frequently invoked following the death of Eric Garner, who was killed in a similar manner after an altercation with police in July. Like Daniel Pantaleo, the officer involved in the Garner incident, officer Francis Livoti never suffered criminal sanctions, although he was tried and ultimately acquitted in 1996.

The call for a special prosecutor to handle investigations into incidents involving fatal use of force has gained traction since the deaths of Garner and Ferguson, Missouri's Michael Brown last year. Both men were killed by police, and the grand juries appointed to hear evidence in each case failed to level charges against the officers involved. Both New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and the U.S. Department of Justice, in a report released earlier this year, have recommended that cases like these be taken out of the hands of local officials.

Because district attorneys work closely with police, many critics of the current system say they may be reluctant to push for indictments against the officers on whom they rely. Some observers, for example, perceived soft questioning of prosecution witnesses in the grand jury that investigated Brown's killing, something that came to light after the prosecutor there took the highly unusual step of releasing the normally confidential proceedings to the public. The testimony heard in the Garner case, by contrast, has not been made public, although several news and advocacy organizations have sued for its release. Still, some of the same questions about prosecutorial impartiality have been raised.

The letter sent by the City Council's Progressive Caucus asks Cuomo to use his executive powers to order what would be a significant change in the process of investigating police-related killings. Councilman Carlos Menchaca, from Brooklyn's District 38, said the effort was about reducing the role politics plays in a problem that has persisted for decades and affects communities of color most acutely.

"This is not about D.A.s being bad actors. In fact, in Brooklyn, we have a really great district attorney. What we want to do is remove politics from the process," Menchaca said.

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Topics: Special Prosecutor