As the debate over how police officers use lethal force has persisted over the last year, protest groups and relatives of people killed by police have outlined changes they hope to see. Among other things, many have called for special prosecutors to investigate such deaths. Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and in New York have questioned whether prosecutors who often work closely with police departments could also investigate them.
In New York, after months of different officials offering varying suggestions for how such deaths will be investigated, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this week that the state attorney general would be the special prosecutor for some of these deaths.
“Our goal is to…start to build trust again,” Cuomo said at a news conference Wednesday. “Where does the breakdown of trust start? A belief that there is a conflict of interest when the current criminal justice system investigates cases about law enforcement.”
Cuomo’s executive order, signed on Wednesday, came nearly a year after the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who died following a police chokehold. It states that the attorney general’s office would “investigate, and if warranted, prosecute” cases involving unarmed people who die at the hands of police.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, wrote an op-ed criticizing Cuomo that was published Monday by the New York Daily News. Carr, along with Constance Malcolm, whose son was killed by a police officer in 2012, wrote that Cuomo had backtracked on promises made to families and critiqued the idea of limiting the special prosecutor to unarmed cases.
Cuomo’s order also says the attorney general can investigate cases where “there is a significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous at the time of his or her death.”
On Thursday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office was forming a special unit to handle cases involving unarmed people who die during encounters with the police. He said that Alvin Bragg Jr., the executive deputy attorney general, would lead the group.
“I am confident they will evaluate each of these cases fairly and impartially, while working to promote justice and ensure independence,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “I can imagine no more important responsibility than the one we have been given by the governor’s executive order, and I am committed to doing my part to help restore public trust and confidence in the handling of these sensitive cases.”
Earlier this year, Jonathan Lippman, New York’s chief judge, said he thought judges, rather than prosecutors, should be the ones to oversee investigations into these deaths.
Grand juries did not indict police officers involved in the deaths of Garner or Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot and killed by an officer in Ferguson last summer. After those decisions, outraged protesters demonstrated across the country, and activists in both states argued that special prosecutors were necessary to investigate these incidents.
The head of New York City’s largest police union dismissed the idea of a special prosecutor this week, suggesting that such oversight was not needed.
“Given the many levels of oversight that already exist, both internally in the NYPD and externally in many forms, the appointment of a special prosecutor is unnecessary,” Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said in a statement Tuesday. “The rules of law apply regardless of who is investigating a case, but our concern is that there will be pressure on a special prosecutor to indict an officer for the sake of public perception and that does not serve the ends of justice.”