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Opinion Ronald Greene’s death shows why police can’t be reformed until prosecutors are

In an image taken from body-camera video, Louisiana state troopers are shown holding Ronald Greene down on his stomach on May 10, 2019, near Monroe, La. (Louisiana State Police via AP)

Mary F. Moriarty was a public defender in Hennepin County, Minn., for 31 years, including six years as chief public defender.

The brutal treatment and death of Ronald Greene in police custody in Monroe, La., perfectly illustrates why our police departments can’t be reformed until our prosecutors’ offices are reformed.

Watching the video this month of Louisiana troopers punching, shocking and dragging the pleading and handcuffed Greene face down across pavement made me wonder just how often Black people died at the hands of police in this country without loved ones ever getting hold of the evidence they need to counter a false official narrative. At least, I thought, here, Greene’s family had that evidence in the form of damning body-camera video.

Except they nearly didn’t. The video I was watching was two years old — from May 2019 — because the state police in Louisiana withheld the footage until the Associated Press obtained leaked video and released it.

The family alleges in a lawsuit that police initially told them that Greene died from injuries sustained in a car crash; police are pointing to news articles from the day reporting that Greene was “combative” with officers and became unresponsive after being restrained. All along, there was a simple way to clear up any questions. But while body-cam evidence existed, it was essentially irrelevant until the right people — the public — saw it.

Body-cam video can be a critical component of police reform, but only if it is used to hold police officers accountable for wrongdoing. And there is only one actor in a position to play that role. In the Greene case, the police say they gave their investigation materials to local prosecutors as early as August 2019. Those prosecutors apparently watched the video of Greene being brutalized and made the decision not to file a single criminal charge against any of the troopers.

Prosecutorial decisions such as this are a major reason police officers continue to engage in unlawful behavior. There is no incentive to change.

In my home state, after the murder of George Floyd, journalists often asked how the Minneapolis Police Department could have employed an officer such as Derek Chauvin, who had been the subject of 18 previous complaints. The answer is that there is little accountability for police in the criminal legal system, and in my experience as a public defender, it wasn’t just Minneapolis.

One officer from a suburban police department had six cases thrown out by five different judges for violating the rights of public-defender clients. Twice, judges found him “not credible” — judge-speak for lying. But the officer just went on policing as he always had, and why wouldn’t he? Prosecutors went right on charging and fiercely litigating cases brought to them by this officer. When a public-defender supervisor asked what the county attorney’s office intended to do about this officer, the answer she received was: “We’re not his employer.”

In other words, nothing.

Incentives matter. Prosecutors are the most powerful entity in the criminal legal system because it doesn’t matter what cases police bring to them — they still decide whether to charge an individual with a crime. Because prosecutors represent the people, not the police and not any individual, they are supposed to focus on doing the right and just thing. Unfortunately, too many prosecutors simply want to “win” — i.e., get a conviction — and this often puts them in the position of trying to justify bad or even unlawful behavior by police.

Imagine the power of prosecutors who won’t do this. They exist, but they are few and far between. Prosecutors concerned with police accountability could refuse to charge cases brought by officers who repeatedly violate the rights of community members. Prosecutors could make police chiefs aware of disturbing patterns of behavior they see with certain officers. They could also disclose to the defense any potentially favorable information about officers early on, instead of waiting to fight disclosure in a contested hearing. In this way, prosecutors can play a major role in holding police accountable and helping chiefs remove problematic officers.

And this prosecutorial role takes on even greater importance when you realize prosecutors may be the only ones to see body-cam video. In any large police department, hundreds of hours of footage are produced every day. In the Chauvin case, four MPD officers and a Minneapolis Park Police officer all had their cameras running throughout the incident. And that was just one call in response to a report of a fake $20 bill. Prosecutors are their community’s eyes and ears on this massive trove of powerful evidence; they bear a profound duty to justice.

There is also one additional, simple reason prosecutors should want to help address police accountability. Rather than attempt to defend the bad behavior of police in a trial, wouldn’t it be easier to try to prove cases with good police work? In other words, shouldn’t prosecutors want good police officers and do everything they can to rid the system of the bad ones?

Read more:

Jane Manning: Police misconduct isn’t just brutality. The Justice Department needs to investigate failures to protect.

The Post’s View: The graphic video of Ronald Greene’s death shows — again — the urgent need for police reform

The Post’s View: New police brutality cases show the urgency of congressional action

Christy E. Lopez: Limiting police officers’ qualified immunity isn’t the only change needed to achieve real police reform

Nicole Dungca and Jenn Abelson: When communities try to hold police accountable, law enforcement fights back

Police reform in America

Repeated police misconduct: More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.

Listen: “Broken Doors” is a six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system — and what happens when accountability is flawed at every level.

Fatal Force: Since 2015, The Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. View our police shooting database.

Fired/Rehired: Police departments have had to take back hundreds of officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired after arbitration.

Read more coverage on policing in America.