New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says he wants Governor Cuomo to let him investigate and prosecute claims of NYPD violence against New York City civilians.
The claims are currently prosecuted by the city’s district attorneys and police officers, with local D.A.s often working together to prepare a well-researched case that will stand up to trial. But in a letter to the governor, Schneiderman argues that such an arrangement can be perceived as a conflict of interest.
“It is unfair to charge a local District Attorney with the task of investigating and prosecuting those officers when they are accused of a serious crime committed in the course of their duties,” Schneiderman says.
In a press release, he argues that “the overwhelming majority of my fellow prosecutors are…conscientious about [their] ethical duty to see that justice is done in every case.” But, he adds, “the question is whether there is public confidence that justice has been served.”
In the wake of a grand jury decision not to prosecute the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner during an arrest in Staten Island, that public confidence may be waning. According to an NBC/Marist poll, 43 percent of Americans say grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri, have decreased their confidence in the legal system.
The move was praised by civil rights groups. “We believe special prosecutors should be appointed in all cases where police misconduct is at issue,” Sherrilyn Ifil of the NAACP said in a press release. NYCLU spokeswoman Donna Lieberman agreed, saying the move would “promote police accountability and…ensure protection of civil rights and liberties.”
Six members of City Council, eight assemblymen, and six state senators wrote the governor in support of the proposal. Grassroots advocacy group The Justice League has also called for a special prosecutor based out of New York State to investigate criminal cases where police officers use excessive force.
The city’s district attorneys have had a mixed response to the idea that an outside force should be prosecuting police. Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance told NBC’s Meet the Press on December 7 that he’s “completely open” to the idea of working with special prosecutors.
But Brooklyn’s district attorney, Ken Thompson, is “adamantly opposed” to Schneiderman’s request. “Local prosecutors who are elected to enforce the laws in those communities should not be robbed of their ability to faithfully and fairly do so in cases where police officers shoot, kill, or injure someone unjustly,” Thompson said in a statement to the Voice. “The people of Brooklyn have voted for their District Attorney to keep them safe from all crimes, including those of police brutality. The Attorney General’s proposal would override their choice — and that should not happen.”
Pace University School of Law professor Bennett Gershmann says he welcomes Schneiderman’s idea: “[Schneiderman] is right on the money here,” he says. “This has already been done.”
In 1972, after the Knapp Commission famously exposed corruption throughout New York’s law enforcement system, then-governor Nelson Rockefeller made the attorney general’s office responsible for prosecuting law enforcement officials who were accused of crimes.
Gershmann was there: Under special prosecutor Maurice Nadjari, Gershmann was a bureau chief for the office for years. “We did it — we prosecuted cops, we prosecuted judges, we prosecuted prosecutors,” he says. “They were furious. Their impartiality, their commitment to public duty, was being questioned.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Cuomo says the governor’s office is “reviewing the Attorney General’s proposal as we pursue [a] broader approach that seeks to ensure equality and fairness in our justice system.”
Not everyone, though, is convinced that independent prosecutors will solve the problem of potential conflicts of interest in cop abuse cases.
“A lot of these politicians are grandstanding now,” says Josmar Trujillo, a spokesman for New Yorkers Against Bratton, a coalition that advocates for more accountability from law enforcement officials. “We have no indication that the attorney general would be any more transparent than the grand juries — which could be very secretive.”
Trujillo says he’d like to see private grand juries replaced with hearings that are open to the public.