Thursday, August 13, 2015

Grand Juries Aren't the Problem: Pressing Charges Against Police Officers

On August 11, 2015, California enacted SB 227.  This law prevents the use of grand juries in cases related to law enforcement officers' use-of-force prosecution.  What this means is that now, when a police officer fatally shoots a civilian, the decision on pressing charges is up to prosecutorial discretion.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

The prosecutors are the ones in charge of getting an indictment from a grand jury.  In an environment where you could "indict a ham sandwich" these same prosecutors failed to obtain an indictment for the murder of Eric Garner in New York.  In Ferguson, Missouri, the prosecutor decided to overwhelm the grand jury with any possible piece of evidence related to the murder of Michael Brown, and in doing so, managed to not get an indictment.

The grand jury system was a convenient way to allow the district attorney's office to wash their hands of the decision of whether or not to press charges.  In reality, they could have gotten the indictments if they had actually been trying to get them.

Under the new law in California, prosecutors no longer have to go through such a charade.  Now, they can simply choose not to press charges when a police officer murders a person of color, and are not required to give any sort of reasoning for the decision.

A large part of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system revolves around who the prosecutors choose to bring charges against.  Somehow, when a black person is arrested for possession of cocaine, they find themselves in federal court, facing federal charges.   When a white person is arrested for possession of cocaine, they find themselves in state courts, facing state charges.  All of this is up to the sole discretion of the district attorneys.  And due to the decision in United States v. Armstrong, you have to prove that there was intentional racism before you're allowed to subpoena the records from the district attorney's office.  But, of course, those records are what is necessary in order to prove the racism.  (Michelle Alexander has a great discussion of this in her book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness")

Getting rid of the grand juries in the use-of-force cases against police officers isn't the answer.  They're going to find that charges still aren't brought against police officers, and people of color are still being abused and murder by people with immunity to any kind of repercussions.  Police officers need to be held to a higher standard.  Yes, it's a very dangerous job.  But that doesn't mean that police officers should be allowed to shoot people because they feel threatened, or slam their heads against the concrete because they didn't instantly follow any and all orders, or conduct a forcible cavity search in the middle of gas station parking lot.  Any time that a police officer uses force, that officer needs to be held accountable for it.