Editorial: Take prosecution of cop shootings away from DAs

Potential for conflict of interest too much between police, district attorneys
Protesters march toward City Hall in Troy, Aug. 16, 2017.
Protesters march toward City Hall in Troy, Aug. 16, 2017.

Friday’s indictment of Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove is further evidence why the state’s attorney general needs full power to investigate all fatal shootings involving police officers and civilians — whether the civilian was armed or not.

The case involved a Troy police officer who shot and killed 37-year-old Edson Thevenin of Colonie after a car chase. Thevenin was not armed with a gun or knife, but police allege he was armed with something equally dangerous — his car. So Abelove — over the strong objections of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — handled the case himself.

Friday’s indictment relates to allegations that Abelove gave the officer involved in the shooting, Sgt. Randall French, a break by allowing him to testify before a grand jury without securing an immunity waiver. That allowed the officer to testify with no threat of criminal charges for his conduct, essentially protecting him from consequences for any wrongdoing in the shooting.

Local prosecutors and police have to have a strong and cooperative working arrangement in order to be effective. Essentially, they’re two arms of the prosecution team — one arrests suspects of crimes and the other tries to convict the suspect of that crime. It’s a hand-in-glove relationship that invites a potential conflict of interest when a member of the police has to go before the local district attorney in such instances as when an officer shoots a civilian.

[Better late than never for DA to step aside in Troy shooting case]

It opens the door to all kinds of legitimate concerns over police getting special treatment from their local prosecutors because of that close relationship.

Of the 1,155 people who were killed by police in 2016, there were only 13 charges brought against the officers— about 1.1 percent. Is it possible that 98.9 percent of the officers involved in shootings were justified in their handling of a situation? It is, but that number sure raises suspicions about the system favoring the cops over the citizens.

That’s why Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the attorney general’s office power to intervene in cases where a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed suspect.

But in this case, the same potential conflict raised its head when there was a question of whether or not the suspect was considered armed.

Is a vehicle as lethal as a gun? Sure, it can be. But is driving recklessly the same as pointing a gun at someone? That’s not so clear, at least the attorney general didn’t think so in this case.

The fact is that this never should have gotten this far — to where a prosecutor is facing criminal charges of perjury and official misconduct for his handling of a police shooting.

If the state attorney general had control of this case from the beginning, the potential conflict would have been removed and there would be no question about whether the officer got special treatment.

The state must enhance the public’s trust in the law enforcement system by making sure there is no potential conflict of interest when an officer goes before a local prosecutor in the shooting of a civilian.

This case is the perfect example of why.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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