Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that made California the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of grand juries to decide whether police officers should face criminal charges when they kill people in the line of duty, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
“The ban, which will go into effect next year, comes after grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, made controversial decisions in secret hearings last year not to bring charges against officers who killed unarmed black men, sparking protests across the country. Calls for transparency also have come amid national concerns about disparate treatment of blacks and other racial minorities when encounters with cops turned deadly in Baltimore, Cincinnati and South Carolina,” according to the Mercury News story.
These calls for transparency often manifested as public protests addressing the wider issues of police brutality and racial profiling, similar to the one that took place over the weekend at the New Light for New Life Church of God in southwest Fresno.
But just how effective will California’s new law be at ensuring justice for and promoting transparency surrounding police shootings?
According to Mark Coleman, a Fresno criminal defense lawyer, not very effective at all.
“Legislation banning the use of grand juries to investigate police shootings is another knee jerk, feel good piece of legislation that has absolutely no impact on the problem of the use of excessive force by police,” Coleman says.
Even without the often controversial and secretive grand jury process, the procedure used in deciding whether to prosecute police officers will still be “just as secretive.” According to Coleman, the investigative reports that will be submitted to the district attorney in relation to police shootings will still be protected from disclosure, and the officers’ records and disciplinary file will never be released.
The reason? Coleman points to the almost symbiotic relationship that exists between law enforcement and district attorney offices throughout California.
“The DA in virtually every county is dependent on the support of law enforcement unions to get elected. If they lose the support of the union they lose the election. No officer wants a brother officer prosecuted. Every district attorney’s office has a very close relationship with law enforcement. They are extremely unlikely to find a police shooting unjustified,” Coleman says.
Coleman pointed out a civil case settled last week where a teen boy with a pellet gun was mistakenly shot by a Los Angeles police officer. The teen was paralyzed as a result of the incident, and the LA City Council agreed to settle the teen’s case for $12 million. However, the officer involved in the shooting was never held responsible seemingly because of the lack of disinterested parties in the review process.
According to a story in the LA Times, the police chief, the inspector general and the city police commission all reviewed the case, and found the officer’s conduct in line with department policy. “It’s another example of how (the police department’s) inability to evaluate these shootings in an honest way ends up costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars,” said Arnoldo Casillas, the teen’s attorney.
And for Coleman, the case is another example of how the new grand jury law “will be no help.”
Coleman also points to the financial burden that could be imposed on a county or city should the district attorney’s office choose to move forward in prosecuting an officer.
“The district attorney’s budget comes from the county. The county (or city) would be responsible for the conduct of the officer in an on duty shooting and would be on the hook for any damage award that results from a civil case based upon a criminal conviction,” Coleman says.
Because of the relationship between the district attorney offices and police departments, and the possible burdens to county/city coffers, it’s no surprise that officers are rarely prosecuted for excessive force.
In 30 years, Coleman says that he could only think of one instance that he can remember where the DA prosecuted an officer for excessive force.
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