Will Police Shootings Lead to Outside Probes?

Tamir Rice Protest
AP Photo

It was ten years ago that calls in Davis for police oversight led to a police chief resigning, a city commission disbanding, and ultimately the hiring of a police ombudsman to oversee complaints about police officer conduct. What was highly polarizing a decade ago in liberal Davis seems to be gaining traction nationally in the wake of a series of high-profile police killings.

The Hill this week reports that calls are mounting for outside probes of police shootings, with some bipartisan support.

As criticism mounts about the grand jury process that led to no charges against Cleveland officers involved in the shooting of Tamir Rice, California may be leading the way on reform.

In August, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 227, authored by state Senator Holly J. Mitchell, which eliminates the use of a criminal grand jury to investigate cases where a member of law enforcement is alleged to have caused the death of a suspect, either by a shooting or by use of excessive force.

As Senator Mitchell noted, “The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”

However, the California law stops short of calling for an independent probe, something that federal lawmakers are looking into.

The Hill reports, “Dozens of Democrats are pushing a bill to withhold federal funds from municipalities unwilling to allow third-party prosecutions. The issue has returned to the fore after a grand jury in Cleveland decided on Monday not to bring charges against police officers in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.”

“We’ve been on break for two weeks when a lot of this has hit the fan, particularly in Cleveland,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the bill’s author told the Hill. “With bipartisan support on criminal justice reform, I hope this can become a part of it. It’s essential it happens.”

Rep. Cohen believes that “asking local prosecutors to investigate the same local police with whom they work so closely with is a conflict of interest.”

“If a DA [district attorney] indicts a police officer often times the action is taken adversely by law enforcement,” he said.

We have already seen examples of this. Rep. Cohen cited the reaction of officers in New York following the death of Eric Garner, a case where the grand jury declined to indict the officer whose use of a chokehold led to the death of Mr. Garner.

In Baltimore, following the decision to indict and prosecute officers involved in the Freddie Gray death, the lack of vigorous enforcement of laws has been blamed on a surge in crime, particularly shootings and murders in that city.

The bill, entitled “The Police Training and Independent Review Act,” so far has attracted 53 Democratic co-sponsors and Rep. Cohen has been in talks with Republican lawmakers about support as well.

The act places requirements on those states receiving funding under a host of block grant programs. Failure to comply with the stipulations for training and independent review would result in a 20 percent reduction in the grant amount.

The text notes, “Directs the Attorney General to reduce by 20% the amount that would otherwise be awarded to a state or local government under such grant programs for a fiscal year if it fails to enact or have in effect by the end of the previous fiscal year a statute requiring the appointment of an independent prosecutor to conduct any criminal investigation and prosecution in which… the law enforcement officer’s use of deadly force resulted in a death or injury.”

Among others, the NAACP has voiced support for the bill, writing that it would restore needed trust between law enforcement agents and the people they protect.

“The majority of law enforcement officers are hard working men and women, whose concern for the safety of those they are charged with protecting and serving is often paramount, even when their own safety is on the line,” Hilary Shelton, the director of NAACP’s Washington bureau and senior vice president for policy and advocacy, said in the letter. “However, if and when even one of their colleagues engages in behavior that is seen as insensitive to the culture of a community, whether it be conscious or subconscious, the trust of the entire community can be, and will be, lost.”

However, the bill faces obstacles. The National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) believes that independent prosecutors could be swayed by politics – an interesting criticism, given the complaints about the Baltimore prosecutor being swayed by politics.

The Hill writes, “Andy Edmiston, NAPO’s director of governmental affairs, said an independent contractor that’s been hired to look into an officer’s use of force could feel pressured to justify his or her work. As a result, she said, innocent officers could be convicted. Instead, Edmiston said, the federal government should be investing more in police training.”

“A lot of police departments don’t have enough money for training and when their budgets get cut their training is usually the first to go,” she said. “This bill takes funds for training and uses that as the carrot — if you don’t use independent prosecutors we’re going to take away this vital grant.”

The key question is whether this bill would get Republican support.

The Hill reports, “When asked if the committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) would consider adding this to his criminal justice reform bill that passed out of committee in November, a committee aide said in a statement that the committee is taking a ‘step-by-step approach to criminal justice reform.'”

“The Committee has already approved numerous bills to reform federal sentencing laws and rein in the explosion of federal criminal law,” they said in the statement. “The Committee will resume its work on criminal justice reform in early 2016 to address more issues facing the criminal justice system.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. PhillipColeman

    The recurring popular theme on judging the working relationship between the DA and local law enforcement is that the DA is essentially a rubber stamp for any law enforcement desire on which cases to prosecute, or not. District attorneys are universally portrayed as functioning under some unspecified level of intimidation from law enforcement to where they must compromise their duties under law due to an inherent “conflict of interest.”

    Representative Cohen illustrates that increasingly popular notion by saying that prosecution of police officers is “taken adversely” by law enforcement. In support of this notion, Cohen cites the disputable history of reduced “vigorous law enforcement” in Baltimore resulting in increased crime. That episode in Baltimore has been challenged in this blog, but assuming this was an orchestrated protest by the Baltimore Police in response to the DA action’s against them, how exactly does that failure to arrest punish the DA? The DA can easily say that the police need to bring me the case before it can be prosecuted. If arrests go down, crime clearances by police go down, the DA does not get the blame, the police and their political bosses do.

    With a nation-wide search base for other instances of law-enforcement “push back” by police where the DA prosecuted an alleged criminal cop, Cohen did manage to find another instance in New York, where the police “reacted.” What was the substance of their reaction, and more importantly, how did it negatively impact the DA? So the question to Representative Cohen becomes, are two arguably flawed or ambiguous examples reflect a nationwide problem calling for federal legislation for an independent review process of police shootings? We won’t even try here to enter the realm of how “independent” is legislatively defined and applied in the surreal world of partisan politics.

    Here follows a peek into the real everyday world of law enforcement/district attorney interaction and harmony. Our system of government, that of separation of powers, require all police attempts to prosecute to be reviewed and approved by the local district attorney. If the district attorney finds there is legal insufficiency in the prepared request for prosecution–or the legally sufficient case is felt to lack adequate merit to be entered into the costly court system–the district attorney rejects the police request.

    Law enforcement investigations are rejected in the majority of instances by the DA. The irony attempting to be shown here is that–police are far more irritated by the failure to prosecute many of their cases–than by the prosecution of an isolated case of law enforcement malfeasance.

  2. Davis Progressive

    interesting comments by phil.

    from my perspective, i think the conflict is less between the da and police based on relationship and more about the da bowing to politics.  and btw, as the article points out that cuts both ways.  it worked against the police in baltimore.  pushing the investigations to an independent body is the way to go – insulate them from local pressure and let them do their job.

  3. Biddlin

    There have been decades of “outside” probes of dozens of departments and agencies, all showing the same dreary picture of police corruption and malfeasance.

  4. Frankly

    We won’t even try here to enter the realm of how “independent” is legislatively defined and applied in the surreal world of partisan politics.

    You Phil, might not, but I will.

    This is ALL politically motivated.  The criminal legal process we have is not perfect, but it is the best in the free world.  Those who are prosecuted for crime are innocent until proven guilty.  But the angry black community demands a lynching regardless of the final determination from the legal system.  And because Democrats rely on the perception of the black community that they “care”, Democrats just want to be on record that they are doing something to satiate that demand.

    It is frankly disgusting how Democrats keep destructing parts of our system of governance and laws only to secure their political power.  And in California, even the Republicans join in this practice.

    Meanwhile trust in government continues to decline.

    1. Davis Progressive

      I think you’re severely misreading what is going on.  This actually will help police – honest ones because it takes the decision making out of the hands of people who are heavily politically influenced – either way.

      1. Frankly

        And why do you think that outside “independent” people are not going to be politically influenced?

        How will they be selected?

        Say they come back with an decision that the angry black community does not like.  They will just chant the same slogans.

        We are chasing our tail on this… trading one set of different problems that are really just the same problems in a different package.

        1. Davis Progressive

          you’re never going to get people are not politically influenced at all.  but removing people from the location of the controversy helps.  there are people in my office who are very qualified to head this stuff up, they are civil servants, they aren’t political, they could do it.  make it a civil service position rather than a political appointment.

          you’re never going to please the loudest people in a room.  the reason that these issues have traction isn’t because of the loud people, it’s because the people who are more fencesitters see this stuff and shake their head.

    2. Tia Will


      The criminal legal process we have is not perfect, but it is the best in the free world.  Those who are prosecuted for crime are innocent until proven guilty”

      On what factual and or statistical grounds are you claiming that our criminal legal process is the best in the free world ?

      “innocent until proven guilty” – well, that is what we claim, and yet that is not how our system operates. We have two presumptions depending on the social and or economic standing of the individual. Those who can post bail, or are known to or respected by or…..the judge have the ability to be out living their lives until time for their trial. While those who are not so affluent or well connected spend their time behind bars until the time of their trial, effectively based on the concept that they are deserving of incarceration until proven guilty as well as after if proven guilty.

      1. Davis Progressive

        tia – it reminds me of a college professor of mine, the first day of class, we’re just coming out of the 60s and he says, democracy is the worst form of government… our eyes get big.  then he adds, except for all the others.

        1. Tia Will


          democracy is the worst form of government… our eyes get big.  then he adds, except for all the others”

          Unfortunately, that seems to be where the whole concept stops for many. We are already the best, so we have no need to work on further improvement, and we have no lead to look at aspects of other systems that might make our own even better. What a shame that we overlook opportunities to improve because we are, at least in our own eyes, already Number 1.

        2. Frankly

          There is great opportunity to constantly improve any system, but if you fail to understand and honor the key machinery that makes it work, you will not be improving the system, you will be transforming it to something else.  And per the quote there are no other better “something else.”

          1. Don Shor

            Since Churchill said it, then, I presume you feel that a parliamentary democracy is the better system. I’m sure he felt ours was almost as good, though he was a staunch monarchist his whole life.
            Personally, I prefer our version, though I do love to watch their parliament debate.

          2. David Greenwald

            Just because there is no other better something else in your view at this time, doesn’t mean there is no other better something else. When the articles of confederation failed, the drafters of the constitution did not tweak the system and try to improve it, they threw it out and created a new one, a better one, one that really never existed before.

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