Lawmakers Push for Special Prosecutors to Oversee Cases Involving Police Killings

Police rarely face legal consequences for fatal shootings, according to data.

Police rarely face legal consequences for fatal shootings, according to data. Shutterstock

 

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Proponents say assigning special prosecutors to investigate when police officers use deadly force can eliminate a potential conflict of interest among local district attorneys who regularly work with police.

Lawmakers in several states are considering legislation to require special prosecutors to investigate police killings, a move that advocates say is necessary to avoid potential conflicts of interest among local district attorneys who work closely with police to gather evidence and testimony for court cases.

“This is about restoring trust,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Art Haywood, the lead sponsor of a measure that would require special prosecutors, ideally from nearby jurisdictions, to investigate cases where police kill citizens. “Many people do not feel that having a local district attorney and a local police force investigate an incident in their own area would be fair. There’s a feeling that it’s biased.”

Haywood first introduced the legislation in 2015, after the widely publicized deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unarmed Black men who were killed in police custody. Neither officer faced charges, which is the usual outcome for police officers who use deadly force. 

Nationwide, police fatally shoot about a thousand people each year, according to an analysis by the Washington Post, but in the past 15 years, just 110 non-federal law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings. Only 27 were convicted—22 for manslaughter and five for murder, said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who maintains a database on crimes committed by police officers.

“When there is a fatal shooting by a police officer ... investigators seem to start with the assumption that the shooting by the officer was legally justified,” Stinson, a former police officer, told the Associated Press. “As a result, the investigations are often incomplete and inadequate, making it difficult for prosecutors to successfully prosecute.”

A special prosecutor—an attorney from a different jurisdiction, unconnected to the case or the law enforcement agency involved—can help, advocates say, by removing the perception of a biased relationship and opening the investigation to fresh eyes. 

But legislation mandating their appointment hasn’t historically been easy to pass. Haywood’s bill, first introduced in 2015, didn’t get a hearing until 2017 and has never been debated on the Senate floor. The proposal was discussed last week during two days of hearings on police reform and is currently awaiting a solo hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a development Haywood said was largely due to protesters demanding special prosecutors as part of the larger package of bills.

“The protesters here have brought the bill back onto the agenda of the General Assembly,” he said. “And we’ll need the protesters to get us across the finish line.” 

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in late May, protests demanding changes to policing have occurred across Pennsylvania, as they have in every state. 

Other states are considering various bills regarding special prosecutors for certain police cases. In Massachusetts, legislators have called for the creation of a special prosecutor position to review all cases related to law enforcement conduct, similar to a proposal in a package of police reform legislation in the Georgia Senate. A bill in the Illinois House would require a special prosecutor for all officer-involved deaths in the state, while New York lawmakers this month approved a proposal to to establish a special prosecutor’s unit to investigate police-involved deaths. 

“New Yorkers deserve a judicial system that is impartial and fair,” Assemblyman Nick Perry, a Democrat from Brooklyn, said in a statement. “Creating the Office of Special Investigation will address conflicts of interest and foster public confidence that when civilians die as a result of an interaction with law enforcement, justice will be served.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf indicated that he would support Haywood’s bill and the senator said he is “cautiously optimistic” that this could be the year the legislation makes it through both chambers of the General Assembly.

“Whether it’ll pass through the Senate and the House are still open questions to me,” he said. “I’m glad we’re getting more attention, and that the protesters have been consistent in making the demand for more police reform. I’m hopeful we’ll at least get it over to the House. It’s time.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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