By JESSE McKINLEY and J. DAVID GOODMAN
ALBANY — Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday to immediately grant his office the power to investigate and prosecute killings of unarmed civilians by law enforcement officials.
Mr. Schneiderman also challenged state legislators to pass new laws to repair public confidence in the criminal justice system, which he said was badly damaged after grand juries in Missouri and on Staten Island declined to bring criminal charges against officers in fatal encounters with unarmed black men.
But he seemed unwilling to wait for new powers to investigate the police in the event that another killing occurred before new laws were passed. “When the trust between the police and the communities they serve and protect breaks down, everyone is at risk,” he said.
The grand jury’s decision not to indict in the case of Eric Garner, who died after a police chokehold during an arrest on Staten Island in July, has renewed and strengthened calls for special prosecutors to handle such cases.
While Mr. Schneiderman was joined by local and state political leaders during his announcement in Manhattan, the prospects for quick legislative or executive action seem murky at best.
While the Assembly, dominated by Democrats, has passed bills in the past allowing the attorney general to investigate and prosecute alleged police misconduct, similar measures have failed to advance in the Senate, where Republicans were recently elected to a clear majority. On Monday, Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republican leader, Dean G. Sklelos of Long Island, had no immediate comment on the attorney general’s proposal.
The governor’s office also had a measured response to the attorney general, who has had an often chilly relationship with Mr. Cuomo. In a statement, Melissa DeRosa, Mr. Cuomo’s communications director, said the attorney general’s proposal was being reviewed, even as the governor pursued a “broader approach that seeks to ensure equality and fairness in our justice system.”
The proposal received immediate pushback from police unions and several district attorneys in New York City, particularly in Brooklyn, where a grand jury will soon be impaneled to hear evidence in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by an officer patrolling with his gun drawn.
Describing himself as “adamantly opposed,” the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, said in a statement that the voters elected him “to keep them safe from all crimes, including those of police brutality.”
District attorneys in the Bronx and Queens also defended their ability to prosecute cases involving police officers, while the Manhattan district attorney has said, in general, he would remain open to discussing the idea but has expressed reservations about special prosecutors’ lack of accountability.
A spokesman for the Staten Island district attorney, whose office presented Mr. Garner’s death to a grand jury but did not secure an indictment, declined to comment.
Michael J. Palladino, president of the detectives’ union, said the attorney general’s proposal “insulted the intelligence and the integrity of the grand jurors who examined the facts” on Staten Island.
Calls for special prosecutors have often followed fatal police encounters, particularly from relatives of the victims who believe that the close working relationship between local prosecutors and the police prevents them from robustly presenting cases against officers accused of wrongdoing on the job. The calls, however, are seldom answered.
The family of Sean Bell, killed in a volley of 50 police bullets in 2006, urged the state to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the officers. None was appointed. The Queens district attorney secured an indictment against three detectives involved in the shooting, but they were acquitted after a trial on charges of manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment.
The debate over the police and prosecutors seems more likely to percolate through the next legislative session and Mr. Cuomo’s second term, both of which begin in January. Senate Democrats planned to meet in Albany this week, and late Monday introduced legislation to create an Office of Special Investigation within the state attorney general’s office, which would “investigate any criminal offense or offenses committed by a police officer” that results in the death of an unarmed civilian.
Deputy Used Excessive Force on Two Occasions While on Duty
U.S. Attorney’s Office December 04, 2014
Southern District of Indiana (317) 226-6333
TERRE HAUTE—Acting United States Attorney Josh J. Minkler announced this afternoon the sentencing of Terry Joe Smith, a/k/a T.J., age 38, of Greencastle, Indiana. Smith who served as a deputy with the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department was sentenced to 14 months by U.S. District Judge William T. Lawrence. Smith was found guilty after a jury trial in September of this year on two counts of deprivation of civil rights under color of law.
“The public has a right to expect better from their law enforcement officers,” said Minkler. “It is certainly a tragedy when a law enforcement officer with a family choses to violate the civil rights of our citizens, but it would be a far greater tragedy if T.J. Smith was not held fully accountable for his unlawful use of force in this case.”
Testimony at trial indicated that Smith used excessive force against citizens on two occasions in his capacity as a Putnam County Sheriff’s Deputy. These incidents occurred on West Stardust Road and at the Lazy Acres trailer park in Greencastle.
On one occasion Smith punched a victim in the face after other officers had secured the victim resulting in serious bodily injury. The second offense occurred at the Lazy Acres Trailer Park in Greencastle when Smith threw a handcuffed person to the ground and drove his knee into that person’s back while lying on the ground.
Law enforcement officials are subject to criminal prosecution whenever evidence exists that they knowingly abuse their authority and deprive individuals of their constitutional rights. Such acts of misconduct, known as acts committed under “color of law,” include allegations of excessive force.
“The FBI will vigorously pursue law enforcement officers who violate their sacred duty to protect and serve,” said Special Agent in Charge W. Jay Abbott. “The vast majority of law enforcement officers serve bravely and with great integrity in the performance of their duties.”
Minkler praised the outstanding law enforcement work by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI is a leading partner in the U.S. Attorney’s Public Integrity Working Group, which was launched in April 2012 with the stated purpose of aggressively investigating allegations of public fraud, waste and abuse by public officials in Indiana.
According to Assistant United States Attorneys Bradley A. Blackington and MaryAnn T. Mindrum, who prosecuted the case for the government, Smith will serve two years of supervised release after his sentence.