Calls mount for outside probes of police shootings

Bipartisan support in Washington for criminal justice reform in the wake of a series of police killings could provide an opening for efforts to impose independent prosecutions of officers who use deadly force in the line of duty.

Dozens of Democrats are pushing a bill to withhold federal funds from municipalities unwilling to allow third-party prosecutions. The issue has returned to the fore after a grand jury in Cleveland decided on Monday not to bring charges against police officers in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

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“We’ve been on break for two weeks when a lot of this has hit the fan, particularly in Cleveland,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the bill's author. “With bipartisan support on criminal justice reform, I hope this can become a part of it. It’s essential it happens.”

Cohen said asking local prosecutors to investigate the same local police with whom they work so closely with is a conflict of interest.

“If a DA [district attorney] indicts a police officer often times the action is taken adversely by law enforcement,” he said, pointing to what happened to Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York last year following the death of Eric Garner as just one example.

Though a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who placed the unarmed black Staten Island man in a chokehold, officers with the New York Police Department turned their back on de Blasio during a memorial service to protest comments the mayor made following Garner’s death.

Cohen’s bill  — the Police Training and Independent Review Act — has attracted 53 Democratic cosponsors, and he said he is in talks with Republicans about supporting the measure. He declined to name them.

“Right now there’s percolating support,” he said.

The NAACP has already voiced its support, saying in a May letter to Cohen that the bill will help communities restore the much needed integrity and trust between law enforcement agents and the people they are paid to serve and protect.

“The majority of law enforcement officers are hard working men and women, whose concern for the safety of those they are charged with protecting and serving is often paramount, even when their own safety is on the line,” Hilary Shelton, the director of NAACP’s Washington bureau and senior vice president for policy and advocacy said in the letter. “However, if and when even one of their colleagues engages in behavior that is seen as insensitive to the culture of a community, whether it be conscious or subconscious, the trust of the entire community can be, and will be, lost.”

While proponents say independent prosecutors would create an impartial system, not all groups agree.

The National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) said independent prosecutors could be swayed by politics.

Andy Edmiston, NAPO’s director of governmental affairs, said an independent contractor that’s been hired to look into an officer’s use of force could feel pressured to justify his or her work. As a result, she said innocent officers could be convicted.

Instead, Edmiston said, the federal government should be investing more in police training.

“A lot of police departments don’t have enough money for training and when their budgets get cut their training is usually the first to go,” she said. “This bill takes funds for training and uses that as the carrot — if you don’t use independent prosecutors we’re going to take away this vital grant.”

The push for independent prosecutions comes as support builds for criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that changes need to be made, particularly when it comes to the sentencing of drug offenders. Reform bills reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders have passed the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate and now it's up to Congressional leadership to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote.

Cohen’s bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. When asked if the committee Chair Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteIRS head vows to finish term despite impeachment push House Republicans press case for impeaching IRS commissioner Saudis scramble for Washington allies MORE (R-Va.) would consider adding this to his criminal justice reform bill that passed out of committee in November, a committee aide said in a statement that the committee is taking a “step-by-step approach to criminal justice reform.”

“The Committee has already approved numerous bills to reform federal sentencing laws and rein in the explosion of federal criminal law,” they said in the statement. “The Committee will resume its work on criminal justice reform in early 2016 to address more issues facing the criminal justice system.”