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In The Aftermath of Sean Bell: The Need for a Special Prosecutor in Police Misconduct Cases

POSTED: August 27, 2008, 1:33 am

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Some issues are best served with quiet reflection. Now, some time after the Sean Bell verdict, the time is right for some understanding of how we got to this point and why we can’t seem to get past it. Bell was the Queens, New York native who, on the eve of his wedding day, was killed by New York City police officers in a hail of bullets as he departed his bachelor’s party with friends.

There is an inevitable conclusion that we must all face. Race based policing is the order of the day in our cities. There is a clear double standard in how “justice” is meted on our streets.

Don’t think so? Consider these facts: Fifty bullets hailed at an unarmed Black man and no one is held criminally responsible. Forty one bullets hailed at an unarmed Black man and no one is held criminally responsible. An unarmed Black motorist is beaten and asphyxiated leading to his death and no one is held criminally responsible.

Their names were Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and Johnny Gammage. Each of them died at the hands of police officers. Each case is a blatant example of the criminal recklessness of the police officers involved in the incidents. Each case demonstrates a disregard for the value of a human life.

Remember Diallo, with wallet in hand, presenting some sort of threat requiring dozens of bullets to bring him down? And the Bell case with a police officer emptying his gun clip, reloading and refiring? Remember the incident in Philadelphia, when no less than thirteen city officers were beating and kicking helpless a man lying on the ground as the cameras captured the brutality?

Apologists for these brutal police tactics say these are tragic mistakes, not crimes.

Why then aren’t these mistakes ever made with white youth? Why is there never such an unbridled display of brutality leveled at white men by police? It seems to have everything to do with the value of Black life. There is a reverence for the value of white life, so much so that a Bell scenario is unthinkable with a white male suspect.
As for the Bells, Diallos and Gammages of the world, there is the idea that if a mistake is made, it’s unfortunate and sad; never criminal.

Each member of the criminal justice system approaches the killing of young Black men from that perspective. From police to prosecutors to judges. That is why the prosecution of these matters never seems to result in a conviction.

Police and prosecutors enjoy a special and symbiotic relationship. The investigation of a criminal case generally rests with the police and the prosecution of the case with the prosecutor or district attorney. The relationship is played out daily and often goes beyond a working relationship to a friendship. As a result, many prosecutors lack the political will to aggressively criticize, let alone prosecute, police offenders.

Because of this relationship, local prosecutors are hesitant to present these cases to grand juries. When they do so, it is a grudging presentation. Former New York Court of Appeal Chief Judge Sol Wachter once observed that “a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.” The only exception seems to be in matters where police are charged with taking the lives of young Black men. The fact of the matter is this: most grand juries spend a lot of time with their prosecutors. Ultimately, they develop a real desire to be cooperative. As a result, the grand jury usually takes its cue on whether to indict and on what grounds to indict from the tone of the prosecutor. If the prosecutor is unenthusiastic, it shows in the indictment. A weak indictment or a failure to indict can almost always be traced to the prosecutor.

Prosecutors in police matters often make lackluster presentations at trial, simply going through the motions of prosecuting. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of these cases end in acquittal?
These results might be very different if these cases were handled and presented by special prosecutors. For years criminal justice advocates have argued that police brutality and misconduct cases should be taken out of the hands of local district attorneys and handed to special prosecutors who would only deal with the prosecution of police.

Police unions, however, have fought vigorously against the concept of a special prosecutor. Why? Because they fear the independence of a special prosecutor; the fact that he does not rely on police relationships for his livelihood, the fact that the special prosecutor is not part of the law enforcement hierarchy and the fact that they wield no power over a special prosecutor. A special prosecutor means police have no control over the process.
With the empirical evidence we now have from places like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, there is no reason for every major metropolitan area not to have an independent and impartial agency to prosecute police crimes.

Our elected officials must be held accountable for police tyranny in our streets and in our cities. For too long, our elected officials have cowered beneath the weight of the powerful police unions. Special prosecutors, in large part, do not exist because police unions oppose them.

And this is not simply a white phenomenon. Black elected officials have repeatedly betrayed their constituents by failing to stand up for justice in the fight against police brutality. New York under David Dinkins, never seriously mounted an effort to install as special prosecutor. Neither did Philadelphia under John Street.
Black police officers, likewise, have shown an amazing capacity to brutalize that rivals and sometimes exceeds that of their white counterparts.

Black America must ask itself two fundamental questions. First, what is the purpose of installing Black elected officials if they lack the sensitivity to understand the importance of this issue to our community? Second, what was the purpose of integrating police departments if not to provide perspective and balance? The answer is as obvious as the solution. The time has come to demand action on the issue of special prosecutors. The time has also come to hold elected officials accountable for their resistance to legislation. The time has come to say “Never Again.”

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