Would independent prosecutors make police shooting investigations fairer?

Critics say the close connections between prosecutors and local police leads to unjust decisions not to prosecute officers following officer-involved shootings. 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Kerron Stewart, 10, participates in a protests at Louisiana State Capitol building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 10, 2016. The East Baton Rouge district attorney has recused himself from the investigation of police officers in the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge as he had worked closely with the parents of one of the officers.

The absence of indictments of police officers in shooting deaths – especially in high-profile cases like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland – is raising questions about the fairness of using local prosecutors to investigate police officers with whom they may have close ties. 

Critics say the close working relationships between local prosecutors and law enforcement injects a bias into investigations of shootings and other deaths at the hands of police. A solution, some suggest, would be to use independent prosecutors to investigate charges of wrong-doing by police officers. 

The investigation into the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., offers one example of the closeness often seen between prosecutors and police departments. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore recused himself from the investigation, as he had worked closely with both police-officer parents of one of the officers involved in the shooting.  

When a police officer is involved in a shooting, often the officer's own police department opens an internal investigation into the incident. In some cases, says Walter Katz, an independent police auditor of the city of San Jose, Calif., who has studied investigations of police use of lethal force, there is evidence that suggests the investigator's close relationship to the officer can lead to a lack of objectivity. 

"That can be amplified when also the local prosecuting agency is the agency that reviews to decide whether or not to file criminal charges against a police officer," Mr. Katz tells The Christian Science Monitor. "In smaller jurisdictions ... they're going to have a close working relationship, so it creates the potential impression that it's not an arm's length review of the use of force." 

The scarcity of indictments in a variety of high-profile shootings has increased scrutiny of officer prosecutions by local authorities. The prosecutors in both the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland and the Michael Brown case in Ferguson said they believed the officers involved had acted legally. Both were accused of not presenting a fair review of possible charges to the grand juries, as Ari Melber, MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, explained in The Washington Post.

The problem of officer-involved shootings of blacks wouldn't be solved with independent prosecutors, Marbre Stahly-Butts, the deputy director of racial justice for the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy organization, tells the Monitor. But "certainly accountability is an essential step that needs to happen," she says. 

"We have the common sense that asking prosecutors who work everyday with police and depend on police for their cases, to then be objective in prosecuting them, is just not reasonable," Ms. Stahly-Butts says. 

Local advocates are working to address these issues, Stahly-Butts says, especially in St. Louis and New York, where it has contributed to the passage of an executive order ensuring independent prosecutors. 

On the federal level, Congressman Steve Cohen (D) of Tennessee is sponsoring a bill that would withhold federal funding from law enforcement unless the use of independent prosecutors to address instances of deadly force by police is instituted. 

"There's no good reason not to have independent prosecutors," he tells the Monitor. "If you have the prosecutors who work with the law enforcement agency, which they do hand-in-glove to investigate cases and present cases, there is... an appearance of, if not outright, impropriety."

This can limit the citizenry's faith in the justice system, especially if no charges are brought against the officers, Representative Cohen says. On the flip side, when local prosecutors do bring charges, police can react negatively. After Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought charges against officers in the death of Freddie Gray, some believe there was a work slowdown among Baltimore Police, which police officials denied, the Baltimore Sun reported. This hurts the entire community, Cohen says.

The bill, introduced in October 2015, has 80 co-sponsors as of Wednesday morning. Several states have made moves to implement independent prosecutors, including Connecticut and New York. Cohen says it is important to set a nation-wide standard, but House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia has not yet scheduled a hearing. 

The bill is opposed by the National Association of Police Organizations, a law enforcement advocacy group. The organization's executive director, William Johnson, wrote a letter to Cohen expressing fears that officers would face "a great deal of pressure" if investigated by independent prosecutors, The Hill reported.  

"There is a risk that decisions to prosecute would be made based on politics, not on the law and admissible evidence," Johnson wrote. "NAPO is concerned that an officer would be indicted, even if he/she did nothing wrong."

Johnson did not respond to requests for comment from the Monitor. 

Cohen says local law enforcement may oppose his bill because they benefit from the current system and may be "getting home cooking". 

"That's not what justice is about," he says. "All games should be on neutral courts."

Editor's note: This story originally called Rep. Cohen the cosponsor of the bill under discussion.

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