What Sean Bell's Legacy Needs To Be

A permanent, independent prosecutor to handle police crimes

Adams, now a state senator from Brooklyn, said that as a detective he saw the relationship up close. Cops rely on the D.A., and the D.A. relies on the cops: "It makes it extremely difficult for him then to then turn around and prosecute his partner in fighting for criminal justice," he said.

It's not a new idea, but the last time it was raised, it was quickly squelched by both the police unions and the city's district attorneys, who loathe the notion of sharing cases, budgets, and headlines with another investigative office.

But you only needed to watch Queens D.A. Richard Brown's tortured demeanor on Friday after the verdict to know that a special prosecutor dedicated to handling police problems would be doing him and all the other D.A.'s a favor by taking these thankless cases off their hands.

Sean Bell's parents, William and Valerie, exit the courthouse.
Louis Lanzano/AP Wideworld
Sean Bell's parents, William and Valerie, exit the courthouse.

Brown's office was torn apart in an internal dispute over whether to even bring charges in the Bell case. He ultimately erred on the side of trying to win justice. But he'll never escape the suspicion that his office simply took a dive.

Why did his prosecutors read the defendants' grand-jury testimony into the record, critics immediately asked, a move that ensured that the cops wouldn't have to take the stand, thus avoiding potentially damaging cross-examination? Why didn't prosecutors ask the judge to consider the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide—a crime that does not require that wrongful intent on the cops' part be proven?

Eugene O'Donnell, an ex-cop and prosecutor who now ponders the bigger picture as professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that despite his doubts about the independent-prosecutor plan, it may be time to try something new. "Maybe you do need an outside person," he says. "I don't think it is out of order to look at another model. I think at the end of the day, the cops will still be vindicated. But an independent prosecutor and an independent staff that is really skilled at their work? That could build the confidence level of the community."

The ticket to change, say Siegel and Adams, is the new governor. As a state senator answerable only to his Harlem district, David Paterson felt strongly enough about these issues to be arrested as part of the wave of civil-disobedience protests launched after Diallo's killing. Have his passions cooled now that he's the state's chief executive?

"He could do it by executive order," says Siegel. "Nelson Rockefeller did it. So could Paterson."

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