WH task force to review grand juries' handling of police killings

A White House panel is examining whether grand juries are the best way to review the use of deadly force by law enforcement in the aftermath of controversial decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men.

"One of the things that we will be looking at as a task force is independent review of these kinds of cases and how should that take place," Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey, who is co-chairing the panel, told NPR's "Morning Edition" on Tuesday.

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"But, we also want to make sure that everything we do protects everyone's rights and that includes the rights of the police officer, as well."

Ramsey said that what "people are concerned about is how these cases are reviewed."

"Is a grand jury, for an example, the proper way of doing it, with the district attorney's involvement and that so forth?" he asked.

President Obama created the panel late last month, after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

That decision sparked protests across the country, with demonstrators saying the case highlighted systematic racial issues in the criminal justice system. Pressure has intensified following the case of Eric Garner, a black man killed when a white police officer placed him in a chokehold in Staten Island.

Obama said earlier this month that there are "too many incidences where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly."

"When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem, and it's my job as president to solve it," Obama said.

In addition to reviewing the grand jury process, the panel is looking at ways it could change the handling of federal grants to compel police departments to adopt new training procedures.

"There are 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in this country, and the federal government can't order any of them to do specific things," said Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who is co-chairing the panel with Ramsey. 

"But, there are levers that can be pulled," Robinson continued. "For example, tying change to federal grants — like specific changes that the way training is done as a requirement for receiving federal grants in the area of criminal justice."

Ramsey said he was concerned police training did not spend "enough time on the educational component — having officers understand the role of police in a democratic society" and how to establish trust with their communities.

And Robinson added that the government wanted to help law enforcement officers better work to "de-escalate confrontations."

"We've seen in many of the incidents that have sparked controversy that de-escalation could have been a very helpful skill for the officers to have had," she said. "Oftentimes, in training, there's a lot of technical training, how to drive cars, how to shoot. But people skills are so critical."