Prosecutors and police: The inherent conflict in our courts

Protesters, demanding justice for Eric Garner, cross the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, on Dec. 4, 2014.
Protesters, demanding justice for Eric Garner, cross the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, on Dec. 4, 2014.

Our system of government works best when there are checks and balances led by independent entities that are empowered to conduct fair and rigorous oversight. These are the same principles enshrined in the founding document of our country – our Constitution. 

So, why then do we allow relationships within our criminal justice system that could produce bias without any actual oversight?

I am speaking, of course, about the grand jury decision in the case of Eric Garner and the relationship between the Staten Island district attorney and the police officer he purported to prosecute. Despite clear, video evidence that showed what appears to be Garner's chokehold death at the hands of police, the district attorney was unable to obtain an indictment -- even for a lesser offense of assault.

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This incident -- perpetrated against an unarmed man allegedly selling loose cigarettes -- embodies the type of overaggressive, violent policing prevalent in many of our communities of color nationwide.

While the grand jury’s decision stands, as Americans, we must work to eliminate the inherent bias in our judicial system in the relationship between police officers and district attorneys.

District attorneys are often some of the finest public servants. However, the system in which they operate to investigate cases of police misconduct leaves a huge window for unintended bias. Our justice system allows district attorneys to be charged with the great responsibility of prosecuting the very same police officers they work side-by-side with every day and whose union support they seek when running for reelection.

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Any district attorney knows that an endorsement from law enforcement unions is vital to earning voters' trust.  As a result, police unions play an outsized role in district attorney elections.

For these reasons, it's unrealistic to expect even the best district attorney to be absolutely impartial in cases where they are asked to prosecute a police officer. It’s why I have called upon the governor of New York to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute cases where a police officer is accused of causing the death of, or grievous injury to, another person. 

New York state law authorizes the governor to exercise this authority to appoint a special prosecutor, and in fact, many previous governors have done so, including Teddy Roosevelt and Mario Cuomo.  Many of those circumstances concerned systemic problems within law enforcement or the criminal justice system and required independent, outside parties to ensure proper investigation and justice. 

The district attorney’s failure to indict in the Garner case – despite video evidence of the horrific circumstance – is an indication of this same type of broken system that requires a non-conflicted outside entity to intervene.

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This week, Attorney General Holder announced that he will conduct a complete review of the material gathered during the local investigation of the Garner death and the subsequent grand jury investigation. This is an important step that will demonstrate the systemic flaws involved when district attorneys are responsible for indicting police officers.

At the conclusion of the Department of Justice investigation, I urge Governor Cuomo and the legislature to use the information from this inquiry to create lasting change in the system, including possibly establishing a permanent independent special prosecutor for serious police offenses.

Only when we remove the conflicts of interest present in our judicial system and end the excessive force used by police in communities of color will we enhance fairness and make our justice system worthy of the people it governs.

I am reminded of President Washington’s admonition that the “true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

The video of Garner's chokehold not only depicts a gruesome and unjust death, it also represents a sad example of a system so broken that its unmistakable evidence was not enough to overcome the biases of that system. To ensure that no such denial of justice occurs again, we must require that a special prosecutor handles all future investigations and prosecutions of deaths and severe injuries caused by members of the police department.

Letitia "Tish" James is the New York City Public Advocate.