It took a while, but Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove appears to have finally done what he should have done weeks ago, no questions asked: let New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigate the fatal police shooting of a Troy man.
Under an executive order signed in 2015 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Schneiderman has the power to investigate deadly police/civilian encounters when questions arise about whether the civilian was armed and presented a danger.
But Abelove resisted Schneiderman’s attempts to investigate the case, prompting the attorney general to file a lawsuit against Abelove accusing him of attempting a “five-day end run” around the governor’s executive order.
Suing a local district attorney might seem like a heavy-handed tactic, but Abelove’s stonewalling left Schneiderman with few other options.
Whatever the outcome of Schneiderman’s investigation, the Troy case is exactly the sort of case for which the governor’s executive order was intended, and there’s reason to hope that the Attorney General’s investigation will provide clarity — clarity Abelove hasn’t seemed particularly interested in providing.
The man killed in Troy on April 17, Edson Thevenin, a 37-year-old DWI suspect, was not armed; police said he fled in his vehicle and used his car to pin a police sergeant, Randy French, against his cruiser. French fired eight times, killing Thevenin.
Schneiderman might very well find that Thevenin used his car as a weapon and that French was justified in responding with deadly force, but the details of the case are unclear and invite further scrutiny.
From the outset, Abelove’s actions undermined his credibility, and reinforced the need for the governor’s executive order.
He convened a grand jury less than a week after the shooting, before Schneiderman weighed in on whether the attorney general’s office should look into the case. According to the lawsuit Schneiderman’s office eventually filed in New York State Supreme Court against Abelove, the attorney general told Abelove “at least three times” that Schneiderman was interested in the Thevenin case.
Also curious was the grand jury’s quick decision.
Recent history has shown that grand jury proceedings often move at a glacial pace when a police/civilian encounter is at issue, but the grand jury reviewing the Thevenin case moved fast, finding French’s use of deadly force justifiable less than a week later. This speedy resolution accomplished little beyond raising questions about whether Abelove investigated the shooting as thoroughly as he should have, and whether he was more interested in clearing the names of officers he works with on a regular basis than learning the truth about what happened.
The Thevenin case marked the first case in which a local prosecutor has openly resisted Schneiderman’s efforts to claim jurisdiction over a case involving a deadly police/civilian encounter, and it’s unlikely to be the last. One can certainly understand why district attorneys might resist giving up even a little bit of power, but the handling of the investigation into Thevenin’s death shows why a different, more dispassionate perspective might sometimes be warranted.