A.G. Schneiderman Requests Executive Order To Restore Public Confidence In Criminal Justice System

Broad Coalition Calls On Governor To Act Immediately

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today was joined by a broad coalition of elected officials in outlining an immediate first step toward restoring public trust and confidence in the fairness of reviews of cases involving unarmed civilians killed by law enforcement officers.  In a letter sent to Governor Cuomo, Attorney General Schneiderman formally requested that the Governor immediately issue an interim executive order now directing the Office of the Attorney General to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute cases involving unarmed civilians killed by police officers. 

While several proposals for reforming the criminal justice system are expected to be considered when the State Legislature reconvenes, the Attorney General noted the urgent need for immediate action to restore public trust in the outcome of  cases involving unarmed civilians killed by law enforcement officers by ensuring these cases receive a thorough, impartial and independent review. The proposed order would be drafted to expire when the Legislature acts to permanently address this problem. 

Attorney General Schneiderman announced his proposal at a news conference in Manhattan, where he was joined by a broad coalition of elected officials, including New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“The horrible events surrounding the death of Eric Garner have revealed a deep crisis of confidence in some of the fundamental elements of our criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “Nothing could be more critical for both the public and the police officers who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe than acting immediately to restore trust and confidence in the  independence of reviews in any case involving an unarmed civilian killed by a law enforcement officer. While several worthy legislative reforms have been proposed, the Governor has the power to act today to solve this problem. I strongly encourage him to take action now.”  

In his letter to the Governor, Attorney General Schneiderman wrote, "This crisis of confidence is long in the making and has deep roots. But it is not a problem without a solution.  A common thread in many of these cases is the belief of the victim’s family and others that the investigation of the death, and the decision whether to prosecute, have been improperly and unfairly influenced by the close working relationship between the county District Attorney and the police officers he or she works with and depends on every day. It is understandable that many New Yorkers feel that it is unfair to charge a local District Attorney with the task of investigating and prosecuting those officers when they are accused of a serious crime committed in the course of their duties."

Attorney General Schneiderman's letter continued, "The question in these difficult cases is not whether a local prosecutor, including one with understandably close ties to his or her fellow local law enforcement officers, is capable of setting aside any personal biases in deciding whether, or how vigorously, to pursue the case.  As the State’s chief law enforcement officer, I know that I and the overwhelming majority of my fellow prosecutors are not only capable of doing so, but are conscientious about our ethical duty to see that justice is done in every case.  Rather, the question is whether there is public confidence that justice has been 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."

The Attorney General wrote, “Subdivision two of Executive Law section 63 currently authorizes you to supersede any local District Attorney on any criminal matter as you deem appropriate by appointing the Attorney General to investigate and prosecute the case.”

In addition, Executive Law section 63 (3) authorizes the Governor to direct the Attorney General to “investigate the alleged commission of any indictable offense or offenses,” and to “prosecute the person or persons believed to have committed the same and any crime or offense arising out of such investigation or prosecution or both, including but not limited to appearing before and presenting all such matters to a grand jury.”  

Consistent with this legal authority, Attorney General Schneiderman stated in his letter that he is requesting that the Governor “immediately issue a temporary standing order, pursuant to subdivisions two and three of Executive Law section 63, authorizing me to: (1) investigate the circumstances surrounding the commission or alleged commission by any police officer or peace officer in the State of any act or acts, committed while the officer is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties, that result in the death of any unarmed person other than a fellow law enforcement officer so engaged; and (2) where warranted, criminally prosecute the officer for such acts as provided in those subdivisions.”

In addition, Attorney General Schneiderman wrote, “I would further respectfully request that, to avoid the possibility of compromising any local, state or federal investigations already in progress, the order apply only to incidents occurring on or after the date the order is signed” and that “the order state that it will expire when the Legislature acts to permanently address this issue in such manner as it deems appropriate.”

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said, "Recent national events have raised serious questions about the ability of local prosecutors to bring charges against police officers. It is unrealistic to expect district attorneys who regularly rely on local police to make cases to be absolutely impartial when investigating police misconduct. In order to remove conflict of interest or bias, it is imperative that a separate prosecutor - with no connection to the local police department - pursue police misconduct cases. I'm proud to work with Attorney General Schneiderman in advancing common-sense solutions and restoring faith in our justice system."

New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said, "A central pillar of American Justice is the public's belief that all people, regardless of background, status, or rank, be subject to equal justice under law. This means having confidence in the criminal process and the police, prosecutors, judges, and others who serve to protect and defend communities every day. Attorney General Schneiderman's proposal would affirm this high principle by assuring New Yorkers that law enforcement will engage in an independent, thorough investigation of these highly-sensitive cases and, where appropriate, prosecute wrongdoers to the fullest extent of the law." 

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., said, "We wholeheartedly support Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's request to be appointed as a special prosecutor in police-involved deaths and his call for changes in the law that will institutionalize this practice.  In fact, we believe special prosecutors should be appointed in all cases where police misconduct is at issue.  Placing the authority for investigating and prosecuting cases involving police abuse with an independent and impartial prosecutor will help to ensure that biases, conflicts of interest and politics do not infect systemic efforts to hold police accountable for their conduct and [to] ensure the integrity of the process for all."

U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (NY-10) said, "The failure of the Grand Jury to indict in the Eric Garner case, in which there was no question of ample probable cause for an indictment, demonstrates unequivocally the need for an independent investigator with prosecutorial authority in all cases where someone is killed at the hands of the police. The district attorney has an inherent conflict of interest because of his necessarily close day to day working relationship with the police. The Governor can, and should, deputize the Attorney General for this purpose, pending definitive action by the legislature. I commend Attorney General Schneiderman's on his proposal." 

U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel (NY-13) said, "I'm proud of our Attorney General for leading the nation in taking action to ensure trust in the criminal justice system. His latest effort is a constructive step towards revamping the relationship between the police and the people. Whether in New York or elsewhere in America, law enforcement exists to protect the public and we must do everything to prevent wrongful deaths such as Eric Garner's."

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said, “I am pleased that Attorney General Schneiderman is advancing the call for his office to be appointed to the investigations of incidences involving the deaths of unarmed individuals that are related to police activity. A broad coalition of New Yorkers, including elected officials, members of law enforcement, legal scholars and concerned residents, share in the belief that the handling of police shootings should be wholly separated from local grand juries. These bodies cannot effectively handle cases involving local police officers on whom they rely every day. Immediate action is necessary to restore the public's trust in our criminal justice system, a trust that is essential to the order of our democracy."

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer said, "New York clearly needs a reliable method of dealing with deaths from police actions against unarmed civilians such as Eric Garner. A standing executive order from the Governor directing the State Attorney General to act as a special prosecutor in such instances – just as is now done in cases of Medicaid  fraud – is just such a method, until the legislature decides to act."

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, “The failure to secure an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner leaves New Yorkers with an inescapable question: how can we hold police officers accountable for the death of unarmed civilians. The designation of a special prosecutor to handle these cases going forward is an important first step to help restore public faith in our justice system. A special prosecutor along with other criminal justice reforms are needed to help promote police accountability and to ensure protection of civil rights and liberties.” 

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “Local prosecutors must rely on police departments as partners in law enforcement. These close relationships make it difficult for even the most fair-minded and talented local prosecutor to impartially prosecute his or her own colleagues in the police force. The appointment of a special prosecutor will help ensure that, moving forward, cases of police brutality are thoroughly and fairly reviewed, investigated and prosecuted. Honoring Attorney General Schneiderman’s request would be an important step forward in promoting police accountability and restoring faith in our justice system.”

Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, said, "Given the historic lack of systemic accountability in police brutality cases, we applaud the NYS Attorney General's move to seek to establish the office's authority to investigate and criminally prosecute police officers in cases where deadly force is used against unarmed people. For over two decades, there has been a call for independent prosecution in light of District Attorneys' consistent failure to secure indictments and prosecute in case after case where officers have unjustly used excessive and deadly force. This is a significant step forward in addressing the double standard that has for too long treated officers who brutalize and kill as if they are above the law."

New York State Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, "The sad reality is many New Yorkers currently do not believe that all state residents are treated equally within our criminal justice system. We must take immediate steps to address these concerns and I believe the appointment of a special prosecutor to oversee these types of cases would be a smart and positive step forward. I look forward to working with the Attorney General and all my colleagues in State Government to reform the criminal justice system and to enhance New Yorkers’ trust in this system."

New York Senate Deputy Democratic Leader Michael Gianaris said, "Our criminal justice system must have the full confidence of the public it serves, yet at this moment in history it does not. Attorney General Schneiderman's proposal is a good step forward while we continue to advance legislative solutions to permanently address this issue. I look forward to working with the Governor and the Attorney General to achieve systemic reforms to ensure our justice system works for everyone." 

New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat said, "With our criminal justice system failing Black and Latino communities nationwide, immediate action is needed. New Yorkers are experiencing heartbreak and anger in the wake of the Eric Garner grand jury decision, and it is clear we need a better system for assessing police misconduct. The Attorney General's proposal will bring tougher oversight on this issue and ensure all lives matter."

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman said, “A local grand jury’s failure to bring an indictment after the tragic death of Eric Garner has highlighted serious flaws in our judicial process. An executive order appointing Attorney General Schneiderman as a special prosecutor in future criminal proceedings brought against police officers would help ensure independence and integrity in our criminal justice system.  I wholeheartedly support it.”

New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery said, "I am tremendously relieved that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has proposed to Governor Cuomo that the State Attorney General be appointed special prosecutor when local district attorneys may face conflicts of interest in cases involving local law enforcement. The application of the law must not vary from county to county, or reflect political concerns of prosecutors. I sincerely hope that Governor Cuomo will see the necessity of AG Schneiderman's proposal while my colleagues in the State Senate and Assembly and I pursue longer term legislative remedies." 

New York State Senator Jose Peralta said, “Public confidence in our justice system has been badly shaken by the events of the past few weeks and fundamental changes are desperately. When a police officer kills an unarmed civilian, we need to know that we can expect a just, fair and unbiased legal process." 

New York State Senator Bill Perkins said, "The events unfolding across this nation--from Ferguson to Staten Island--have made a number of things compellingly clear: including the fact that the investigation and prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed and innocent human beings must be truly independent, detached and without local bias. As such, I wholeheartedly support the proposal of Attorney General Schneiderman for an Executive Order that will empower his office to conduct essential investigations and prosecutions in these important matters with the transparency, diligence and forthrightness that such cases deserve. This is one small and necessary step towards ensuring true justice for those who have been senselessly killed at the hands of police officers while concurrently assuring all residents of our City that everyone has an equal right to live, breathe and make their life matter."

New York State Senator Daniel Squadron said, "Restoring faith in its fairness requires reforming each aspect of our criminal justice system, and ensuring that the most difficult investigations for local prosecutors are in the hands of the Attorney General is a very important step. I commend  Attorney General Schneiderman, Public Advocate James and my colleagues for this important proposal and urge my colleagues in the legislature to quickly consider and act on a broad reform agenda." 

New York State Assemblymember Michael Blake said, “I absolutely applaud the leadership of AG Schneiderman displaying immediate action in the face of injustice and pushing for a much fairer process.  We cannot allow for decisions around addressing police misconduct to be up to a local District Attorney where it appears relationships are taking precedence to justice, especially when someone loses their life.  This leadership along with the call of Sen. Rivera and Assemblyman Wright is demonstrating that we won't stand quietly in the face of needed and longstanding justice.”

New York State Assemblymember Karim Camara said, "The outrageous grand jury decision last week made it clearer than ever that local District Attorneys should be removed from grand jury proceedings involving the death of an unarmed person by a police officer.  While the Assembly has passed, and will continue to pass, legislation making this State law, it’s vital that the Governor steps in now.  Too many New Yorkers are losing faith in our criminal justice system. This Executive Order will be a step in the right direction of reversing that trend."

New York State Assemblymember Herman Farrell said, “I wish to thank The Attorney General for working to make sure this moment does not occur again.”

New York State Assemblymember Francisco Moya said, "As the Eric Garner case has shown us, District Attorney-led prosecutions of police officers can create a conflict of interests. We must find better ways to police our police. The death of Eric Garner and the subsequent failure of the grand jury to indict the police officer responsible for his death, on any charge, has made that plain. Until we can agree upon a permanent legislative remedy for this problem, putting such prosecutions in the hands of the Attorney General makes sense. I commend Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for identifying and offering a remedy for a serious problem in our criminal justice system." 

New York State Assemblymember Felix Ortiz said, "Action is needed now. The Governor should provide the Attorney General with investigatory powers. We must strengthen the public's trust in the justice system.”

New York State Assemblymember N. Nick Perry said, “There was so much widespread concern expressed that the Staten Island District Attorney's close working relationship with the police would make it difficult for him to fairly prosecute this case, that there should have been no surprise about the findings of the grand jury he impaneled. The real surprise is that no special prosecutor was appointed.  Making the appointment of a special prosecutor in police cases standard procedure, as Attorney General Schneiderman is proposing today, would enhance the chances of a fair and impartial investigation in cases involving the police, and relieve local prosecutors of the tremendous pressure they face to bring indictments.”

New York State Assemblymember Michaelle Solages said, “In order for our criminal justice system to function, it requires that local prosecutors and the police department have a solid working relationship. However, when the police are the subject of an investigation in which an unarmed civilian has been killed, an independent prosecutor must be appointed to eliminate the appearance of bias and ensure a fair and impartial investigation.  It is essential that we immediately restore New York's confidence in the judicial system.  I commend the Attorney General for taking on this issue.

New York State Assemblymember Keith L. T. Wright said, "I have been pushing the State Legislature to afford the Attorney General jurisdiction over cases of police misconduct since 1999. I am saddened by the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police but gladdened by Attorney General Schneiderman's proactive stance today. The employ of an unbiased arbiter is desperately needed in this instance. I urge Governor Cuomo to use his executive authority to bring a sense of hope to communities of color in New York State.” 

New York City Councilmember Daniel Garodnick (District 4) said, "The current crisis of confidence in our justice system as it relates to police misconduct calls for immediate and unequivocal action.  Particularly in light of recent high profile killings by the police of unarmed people of color -- in New York and beyond --  the public should have further assurance that prosecutorial authorities have sufficient independence.  This is a sensible interim measure until the legislature develops a more comprehensive plan, and I support granting this authority to the Attorney General."  

New York City Councilmember Andy King (District 12), co-chair of the City Council's Black, Latino & Asian Caucus,said, "We have witnessed hundreds of cases across our city, state and country in which outside special prosecutors and grand juries are appointed that do not reflect the interest of the local communities. To authorize Attorney General Schneiderman to investigate circumstances surrounding the acts of police officers resulting in the death of unarmed civilians until legislation is passed makes perfect sense. I urge Gov. Cuomo to take executive action to fix our state criminal justice system. I commend Attorney General Schneiderman for taking on this proactive stance.” 

New York City Councilmember Brad Lander (District 39) said, "As has become painfully clear from Ferguson to Staten Island and far beyond, there is a structural contradiction when local district attorneys prosecute alleged police misconduct in cases involving the deaths of unarmed civilians. DAs must work closely with local police every single day; they simply cannot be fair and objective prosecutors of those very same police. Attorney General Schneiderman's proposal is a good one, that will help restore the accountability and objectivity that justice demands. I urge Governor Cuomo to support it." 

New York City Councilmember Mark Levine (District 7) said, "The results in the case of Eric Garner--and many others--have shaken the public's confidence in our legal system.  We need a fair and independent prosecutor in charge when police officers kill unarmed civilians.  I urge Governor Cuomo to grant this power to the Attorney General until a permanent legislative solution can be worked out." 

New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (District 10) said, "The public's confidence must be restored in our criminal justice system's ability to fairly investigate and prosecute deadly incidents involving the police. I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for his leadership on this important issue, and urge the Governor to use his authority to appoint the Attorney General's office as a special prosecutor in these types of cases as the Legislature considers a comprehensive package of reform."

New York City Councilmember Debi Rose (District 49) said, “I fully support New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s call for executive action so that the Attorney General’s office would have the option of investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by police officers. Local district attorneys have a symbiotic relationship with their local police departments – such a close working relationship creates an inherent conflict of interest to effectively prosecute police officers involved in criminal matters. I am working with and supporting our city state elected who are feverishly working to pass legislative solutions to this situation. In the meantime, the executive action proposed by Attorney General Schneiderman should be signed immediately by Governor Cuomo to restore confidence in a fair, impartial criminal justice system.”

New York City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (District 6) said, "The Eric Gardner case suggests that the existing grand jury process does not always produce a just outcome. It's unpredictable to rely upon local District Attorneys to rectify this situation. A more appropriate remedy is to appoint a special prosecutor in these types of cases. I want to thank the Attorney General for seeking the authority to prosecute cases where local law enforcement may not - for whatever reason - adequately dispense justice." 

New York City Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams (District 45), Deputy Leader and co-chair of the Council’s Taskforce to Combat Gun Violence,said, “As an elected official who has fought for better police practices, I am appalled the Staten Island grand jury failed our community on the heels of such an epic, unjust tragedy in Ferguson. Police officers must be held accountable for their actions. Change must happen to fix our broken criminal justice system, so I call on Governor Cuomo to take immediate action by appointing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to cases where police kill unarmed civilians. Until our state legislature creates the reform needed so that these decisions do not rest on District Attorneys, it’s crucial our Attorney General step in before our criminal justice system fails us again.”

A copy of the letter can read here

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