Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wednesday signed an executive order naming the state attorney general as special prosecutor in cases involving certain police-involved deaths.
Cuomo’s decision to appoint Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as the chief prosecutor in such cases, which often become politicized, comes months after the governor failed to secure enough votes to pass a state law that would permanently address the issue, and days after the mothers of two civilians killed by police wrote a scathing op-ed in a local tabloid blasting Cuomo for “backtracking.”
“It’s a day of action, it’s a day of fairness, it’s a day of justice,” Cuomo said at the signing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, where he was joined by families who previously lost loved ones in police confrontations. He added that his executive action would go a long way to “restoring people’s trust” in government.
Cuomo’s executive action is in response to a growing chorus of community and civic leaders critical of local prosecutors’ handling of controversial police-involved deaths, such as the grand jury investigation into Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, which occurred nearly one year ago. Similar calls for special prosecutors have been made nationwide as a handful of deaths of black men by police officers spurred protests and accusations that prosecutors sidestep normal prosecutorial practices when an officer is suspected of wrongdoing.
With a stroke of the governor’s pen, Schneiderman’s office assumed the responsibility of investigating the often-politically charged cases. The AG’s office now has the power to prosecute cases in which an unarmed civilian is killed by police or if there’s conflicting accounts as to whether the individual is armed and dangerous.
The governor repeatedly referred to “perceived” conflicts of interest between prosecutors and police departments, the latter of which is charged with building cases before passing the probe off to local district attorneys.
“There are far too many Americans that feel the system isn’t providing equal justice for all people, particularly for people of color,” Schneiderman said. “Pretending a problem isn’t there doesn’t help solve the problem.”
Bypassing district attorney’s addresses a “crisis of confidence,” Schneiderman said.
“When there is a crisis of confidence in the justice system, the system cannot work,” he said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union cheered the news.
“The designation of a special prosecutor to handle cases involving police killings of civilians is an important first step toward helping restore public faith and trust in our justice system,” New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement through the group’s Nassau County chapter. “A special prosecutor along with other long-term criminal justice reforms should help promote police accountability and better ensure protection of civil rights and liberties.”
To Frederick Brewington, a prominent Hempstead-based civil rights attorney and board member of Syosset-based nonprofit Erase Racism, Cuomo’s action signaled further progress in the pursuit of justice.
“I think this is step in the right direction,” he said, but it is “by no means a complete and thorough answer.”
“Everything has its evolution,” he added. “It has taken a long time for people to realize the need for this, however, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step.”
Amy Marion, a partner at the Garden-City-based law firm Barket Marion, and the head of the firm’s civil practice group, was less enthusiastic. She acknowledged that circumventing local prosecutors is an important first step but said, “unfortunately, I don’t think it’s enough of a move” forward.
Marion, who last year filed a notice of claim signaling her intention to file a lawsuit against Nassau County police in an alleged police brutality case, disagrees with the limitations on the attorney general’s ability to get involved only when a civilian is killed or if the circumstances are shrouded in ambiguity.
“Make the executive order mean something and have it enforced when there’s a shooting,” she said. “Why do we have to wait for deaths to happen?”
“Wouldn’t it be better to investigate when there’s questionable shootings or questionable police brutality?” she continued.
James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, is also skeptical, but for different reasons.
“I think this gives the appearance that the governor believes that the district attorneys are not doing their job as they were sworn to do, and it gives the perception to the public that police officers have not been held up to the standard of the law,” Carver said.
The union boss questioned why Cuomo didn’t request a special prosecutor last year when Garner’s case was being investigated by then-Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who last November was elected to Congress. Garner died after an officer wrapped his arms around Garner using a prohibited chokehold. The encounter was caught on video and posted on YouTube, prompting several days of intense protests in New York City and nationwide.
Asked about criticisms that prosecutors often give police officers the benefit of doubt when there’s questions of wrong doing, Carver said that’s how it should be.
“I happen to think that police officers should be given the benefit of the doubt due to the fact that the police officer is the person protecting citizens from criminal activity,” he said. “And the fact that police work is dangerous work and that there are multiple occasions that we are confronted with someone who just doesn’t want to comply with the law and sometimes that does result in some type of incident that injuries can be sustained.”
In many high profile cases—such as the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Garner’s chokehold death—the lack of an indictment, coupled with a perceived conflict of interest, has spurred activists into action.
“Too many New York families continue to suffer due to this police brutality epidemic,” Garner’s mother, Carr, and another mother who lost her child in a police-involved shooting, wrote in a searing rebuke of the status quo in the New York Daily News Tuesday. “Even in cases with video evidence, local DAs have failed—an abysmal track record that spans decades.”
Some prosecutors, however, have secured indictments in such cases. A Brooklyn grand jury indicted a rookie NYPD officer in the death of Akai Gurley, and in Baltimore, six police officers have been indicted in the death of Freddie Gray.
Locally, former Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice dropped charges against a then 20-year-old Westbury man accused of resisting arrest during a traffic stop in April 2014. Video of the incident allegedly shows an officer beating the man, who is represented by Marion, inside his car. One of the officers, Vincent LoGiudice, was charged with assault after Rice’s office re-examined the case. He has since pleaded not guilty.
In a request for comment, Rice’s appointed successor, acting-Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, said in a statement that she has “great faith in the professionalism of our local police departments and prosecutors across the state.”
“Governor Cuomo’s executive order appointing a special prosecutor to handle certain police shootings responds to a crisis in public confidence in how some of the cases have been handled in New York,” she added. Singas said her office stands ready to assist the attorney general if called upon.
A spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota did not respond to a request for comment.