December 15, 2014 5:15 pm

Schneiderman: Let Me Prosecute Cases of Cops Killing Civilians


State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last week inserted himself into the debate over police use of deadly force, asking Governor Cuomo to issue an executive order appointing him to investigate and prosecute cases involving unarmed civilians killed by police officers.

In a letter to Mr. Cuomo dated Dec. 8, Mr. Schneiderman said the question is not whether local District Attorneys, who often have close ties to police departments, can conduct adequate investigations. “Rather,” he wrote, “the question is whether there is public confidence that justice can be served, especially in cases where homicide or other serious charges against the accused officer are not pursued or are dismissed prior to a trial by jury.”

Police-Union Opposition

The initial response from Mr. Cuomo was cool, and the State Senate, which will be controlled by Republicans after the New Year, indicated that it would not look favorably on legislation that key police unions oppose.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said, “There is absolutely no reason to alter the existing system because if the rule of law and the rule of evidence as they stand in New York State are followed dispassionately and honestly, then the outcome will be right and just regardless of which office handles a case.”

But Mr. Schneiderman’s request deepened the controversy over how law enforcement can deal with officers who fatally shoot unarmed suspects who are members of minority groups.

The request came five days after an announcement that a Staten Island grand jury had declined to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, in the death of a 43-year-old black man, Eric Garner, in July. Mr. Pantaleo and other officers were attempting to arrest Mr. Garner—obese, plagued with health problems and a head taller than most of the cops—in response to complaints from area merchants about the sale of loose cigarettes.

Dispute on Chokehold

Mr. Garner told the officers that they were harassing him and refused to cooperate with their attempt to handcuff him. “This ends today,” he said. A cell-phone video taken by a bystander showed Mr. Pantaleo moving behind him and placing his hands under Mr. Garner’s arm and near his neck to bring him to the ground. “I can’t breathe!” Mr. Garner shouted over and over. He died of a heart attack in the emergency room about an hour later.

Critics of the police, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said Mr. Pantaleo had used a chokehold, which has been banned by the NYPD since the 1980s. Mr. Pantaleo, a Police Officer for eight years, and the PBA have said it was not a chokehold but rather a technique he learned in the Police Academy. But the disagreement over the hold and the accompanying video were key factors in the refusal of many in the city and around the country to accept the grand jury’s decision, which was followed by days of protests.

Next up is Police Officer Peter Liang, who while on a vertical patrol in East New York’s crime-plagued Louis Pink housing project fired a round in a pitch-black stairwell, killing a black man, Akai Gurley, 28. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said Mr. Liang had fired by accident, and Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson has announced that he will bring the shooting before a grand jury.

Mr. Thompson, who was elected a year ago, is a former Federal prosecutor, and it is not clear how close his ties are to the NYPD. But his mother is a retired Police Officer with the department, and the PBA endorsed him for election over six-term incumbent Charles J. Hynes.

Special Treatment?

As in the case of Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., whom a grand jury declined to indict in the shooting of a black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, prosecutors in the Garner case made more-elaborate presentations than usual to the panels, heightening questions about whether they treated Mr. Pantaleo more solicitously than others suspected of criminal wrongdoing.

Mr. Garner, Mr. Gurley and Mr. Brown were all unarmed, and advocates have presented the cases as a trend of unequal police treatment of black men.

“When the trust between police and the communities they serve and protect breaks down, everyone is at risk,” said Mr. Schneiderman at a press conference in Manhattan, flanked by Public Advocate Letitia James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“While several worthy legislative reforms have been proposed, the Governor has the power to act today to solve this problem,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I strongly encourage him to take action now.”

Cites Power to Act

He said Executive Law Section 63 authorizes the Governor to supersede any local District Attorney on any criminal matter by appointing the Attorney General to investigate and prosecute the case.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo told the New York Times that he was reviewing Mr. Schneiderman’s request while pursuing “a broader approach that seeks to ensure equality and fairness in our justice system.”

“I think we should look at the whole system, and it’s not going to be one quick fix,” Mr. Cuomo said in a radio interview Dec. 4.

“This is about race relations,” he said. “This is about police training, certainly. And better training. This is about transparency. This is about accountability. This is about diversity in the police force. It’s all of the above. And it’s about the grand-jury process, possible reforms to the grand-jury process. It is about cameras on police. It’s about the laws concerning a police officer and their right to effect an arrest.”

He referred to “potential roles for special prosecutors.”

Two city Democrats in the State Legislature said they would introduce legislation requiring a special prosecutor in any case in which an unarmed civilian is killed by police.