Wall Street Journal
July 7, 2015 8:53 p.m. ET

Cuomo Pledges to Change Handling of Police-Related Deaths

Governor plans to sign an executive order giving attorney general authority to prosecute in such cases


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo met Tuesday with families of civilians who have died in encounters with police officers and said he soon would sign an executive order that would change how the state handles such cases.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Cuomo said he expected to sign an executive order to give Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to prosecute police officers who have killed civilians in the line of duty. He first announced the plan last month.

But by Tuesday afternoon, after the governor met for 30 minutes with advocates calling for more, something seemed to have changed. Mr. Cuomo’s spokeswoman said conversations on the matter were continuing and the governor would sign the order “soon.” Another spokeswoman declined to give a timetable.

After the meeting, Yul-san Liem, co-director of the Justice Committee, an advocacy group working with families who lost relatives in incidents with police, said the families “expressed some of our concerns...related to what would make the most effective special prosecutor—that it be ongoing, free of loopholes, and cover all cases.”

New attention was drawn to the issue following the case of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died last July on Staten Island after he was placed in an apparent chokehold by a white New York Police Department officer during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.

Activists have called for a law appointing a special prosecutor who would determine whether officers would face criminal charges after their actions on the job result in a death. Such decisions now rest with district attorneys and grand juries.

Mr. Cuomo said he worked with legislators to get a law passed this year that would put a permanent prosecutor or independent body in place to oversee the cases, but the efforts failed.

“I said to the families [of people killed by police] if we don’t get the law passed I’ll do it by executive order,” he said. “We didn’t get the law passed.”

Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda, a Bronx Democrat, was one of several lawmakers who introduced a bill on the issue.

“We spoke with members of the Senate to see if we could build some sort of compromise...but they didn’t budge,” he said.

District attorneys in both parties have expressed concerns about a special prosecutor, which saps some of their authority.

Sen. Marty Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said on Tuesday: “I don’t think we need a special prosecutor. The district attorneys do a good job.”

Advocates were cautiously optimistic Tuesday that Mr. Cuomo’s executive order would meet their standards. Gwen Carr, Mr. Garner’s mother, and other activists called on Mr. Cuomo to promise to renew the order after one year and ensure it pertained to armed as well as unarmed civilians killed by police.

Outside the governor’s Manhattan office Tuesday, activists erected black cardboard coffins on the sidewalk, bearing the names of men killed by police.

“Cuomo, you don’t want to fight! A real special prosecutor, get it right!” they chanted.

At an unrelated event Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo defended his plan, saying he only had the authority for a one-year order.

“We are crafting the best executive order that we can,” he said.