Wall Street Journal
Upd. July 8, 2015 8:22 p.m. ET

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Taps Attorney General in Police Deadly-Force Cases

‘This situation that we’re addressing is a crisis’

Iris Baez, mother of Anthony Baez, shakes Gov. Andrew Cuomo's hand after the governor signed the executive order on Wednesday. Mr. Baez died in 1994 after a confrontation with a police officer


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday gave the state attorney general the authority to prosecute cases in which a police officer kills a civilian, nearly a year after Eric Garner died in a confrontation with police on Staten Island.

Mr. Cuomo’s executive order authorizes the attorney general, now Eric Schneiderman, to pursue cases in which a law-enforcement officer kills an unarmed civilian or cases in which “there is a significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous at the time of his or her death.”

In New York and across the country, a number of black men have been killed in encounters with police officers, raising questions about how those cases are handled by district attorneys and grand juries.

Critics have said there are potential conflicts of interest for district attorneys since they work closely with police. Such complaints became pronounced after grand juries declined to indict police officers after the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Mr. Garner, two black men who were unarmed when they were confronted by police.

At a news conference in Manhattan, Mr. Cuomo said the order made New York the first state in the nation to implement such a special prosecutor, although he emphasized that he would ask the Legislature during next year’s session to pass a law that would put a permanent prosecutor or independent body in place to oversee the cases.

The executive order isn’t retroactive and is set to last one year, he said, by which point he expects a law to be enacted.

Women whose families members where killed by police officers, including Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, right, and Hawa Bah, mother of Mohamed Bah, second from right, react after Mr. Cuomo signed the executive order on Wednesday.

“This situation that we’re addressing is a crisis,” Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said at the news conference, attended by black clergy members, lawmakers and family members of civilians who have died in encounters with police. “When a community doesn’t have trust for the criminal-justice system, it creates anarchy.”

The governor has faced pressure, particularly from victims’ families, to name a permanent, independent prosecutor but has simultaneously contended with district attorneys concerned that such a position would undermine their authority.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said that while he was confident that Mr. Schneiderman has the “integrity” to handle the cases, he questioned whether the attorney general’s office has adequate resources.

“I am sure that their office has nowhere near the experience that my assistants and I have amassed,” Mr. Johnson said.

The head of the union that represents New York City police officers called the measure unnecessary. “The rules of law apply regardless of who is investigating a case,” saidPatrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, “but our concern is that 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.”

On Wednesday, many of the advocates pushing for a permanent prosecutor said they were gratified by Mr. Schneiderman’s appointment but still hoped for a longer-term solution.

“It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Gwen Carr,Mr. Garner’s mother.

Mr. Garner died last July after he was placed in an apparent chokehold by a white New York Police Department officer during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.

“It was the consolidation of the families that actually got this done,” Ms. Carr added.

In this year’s legislative session, the governor had tried to pass a law to address the matter, but the efforts failed—in part, Mr. Cuomo said on Wednesday, because upstate lawmakers wanted such a special prosecutor to be appointed by region.

The executive order instructs Mr. Schneiderman’s office to provide the governor with a report explaining the outcome of cases in which the special prosecutor declines to present evidence to a grand jury or in which a grand jury doesn’t return an indictment.

Expenses associated with the special prosecutor’s work would be paid by the county in which the death took place, as dictated by state law, according to the governor’s office.

Write to Erica Orden at erica.orden@wsj.com