Capital News 12:57 a.m. | Jun. 23, 2015

Law enforcement officials resist plan for special prosecutor

By Sally Goldenberg, Gloria Pazmino and Azi Paybarah

Law enforcement officials said Tuesday that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate cases in which civilians die during police encounters casts doubt on the police and district attorneys whose powers will be usurped.

Cuomo has said he will sign an executive order deputizing the state attorney general as the special prosecutor.

Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said Cuomo’s move was “understandable” considering the public unrest that followed the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others. But, Mullins said, it doesn’t matter who investigates these cases since the facts and the laws by which police actions are judged, aren’t changing.

“The problem isn’t who is trying the case or doing the investigation. The problem is that if the facts don’t come out in the very beginning, public unrest gets created because politicians are too afraid to address the issue," Mullins said, adding that politicians need to "come out up front and say ‘This is what happened. Here is the law, this is what took place. We’re doing an investigation and if there is wrongdoing, this police officer will be punished.’

"It’s not like we’re going back to the civil rights days where members of law enforcement were part of the Ku Klux Klan that were executing people on the side of the highway. … That’s not what’s occurring here,” Mullins said.

Mullins said Cuomo’s action “is certainly not sending a message to law enforcement that, ‘Hey, we support you.’ It’s not sending that message."

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, echoed Mullins' criticism, but also said “there will be pressure on a special prosecutor to indict an officer for the sake of public perception and that does not serve the ends of justice.”

Frank Sedita, head of the New York State District Attorneys Association, did not immediately return a request for comment.

For his part, Cuomo said appointing an independent prosecutor "is going to be another national model.

"I understand the tensions. I understand district attorneys don’t like the questioning of their independence. [But] the perception of a conflict of interest can be just as harmful as the actual conflict. And when a district attorney works hand-in-glove with the police, and then the district attorney has to turn around and investigate the same police force that they are working with hand-in-glove ... there is a perception issue.”

While praising the state's "extraordinary district attorneys,” Cuomo said "it is also undeniable that we have a trust issue and the trust issue has to be addressed and this is a way to address that trust issue."

Bronx district attorney Richard Johnson said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has the “integrity” to handle these cases, but doubted his office “has the necessary resources.”

“I am sure that their office has nowhere near the experience that my assistants and I have amassed," Johnson said in a statement. "My office has handled at least nine controversial death cases involving the NYPD and two non-fatal cases. We have run the gamut from deciding not to put cases before the grand jury ... to indicting officers, and in three cases securing guilty verdicts.

"This all leads me to the conclusion that DA offices remain the best option for serving the concerns of both police officers and the families of the deceased in these very intricate investigations,” he said.