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