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House Dem urges grand jury reform after Brown, Garner decisions

 

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) wants to add additional oversight to investigations on police-involved deaths, just weeks after two high profile grand juries declined to indict officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men.

The “Grand Jury Reform Act” makes certain law enforcement federal funding contingent on a state agreeing to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate deadly-force cases involving officers and hold a public hearing in front of a judge to air evidence. The judge’s legal finding and the prosecutor’s recommendation would then be forwarded to a local district attorney, who then can make the determination whether to indict, impanel a grand jury or end the investigation.

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“When the grand juries in Ferguson,[Mo.] and New York refused to indict those officers involved in killing those unarmed men,” Johnson said during a Friday call sponsored by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, “I think many people understood that the nation’s grand jury system is fundamentally broken, especially when police are investigated for the killing of civilians.”

In a second bill, the “Police Accountability Act,” Johnson wants to give the Department of Justice further authority to investigate officer-involved deaths, by making it a federal crime for officers to commit murder, manslaughter and other violent crimes. Right now, the federal government’s main recourse in these cases is a federal civil rights case against an officer, which Johnson believes is too high of a standard of proof for a “garden variety homicide.”

Those proposals comes after the two grand juries decided not to indict two white police officers, which sparked protests across the nation. Johnson said that Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor who led the grand jury inquiry into officer Darren Wilson, brought bias into the process and misused the grand jury system.

“The passage of this bill would help restore trust in our justice system while ensuring a fair profess for everybody,” Johnson said.

“[It] gives the public some understanding of what the evidence is in the case and how a neutral and detached decision maker views the case,” which can put “pressure on the elected district attorney to proceed in a righteous way.” 

Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told The Hill that while Johnson’s bills are “well intentioned,” they could create problems for officers and witnesses.

“There’s a very very good reason for the secrecy of the grand jury system,” he said. “You provide a forum for providing accurate information without disclosing information about the witness who might otherwise find themselves in peril of their lives.”

Pasco said that a public hearing before an officer has been indicted could jeopardize that protection, while also leaving an officer that’s found to have acted within his rights vulnerable. 

“I think we need only look at the case of Officer Wilson in Ferguson, that merely being exonerated is not enough in the case of a police officer,” he said. “If the community feels that he’s guilty, then it’s apparently a case of facts be damned.”

Johnson said that while he respects the privacy of the grand jury process, there is “no societal interest in keeping the identity of a police officer who has killed a citizen private” and that these cases don’t deserve the “same degree of secrecy” as others.

He added that in the “overwhelming majority of cases,” officers will be cleared through the process and their actions will be seen as justified.

“But in those cases that the police acted wrongfully, this will be a mechanism that allows the public to have trust that the police officer will be brought to justice.”