The pros and cons of special prosecutors for police officers

posted at 12:41 pm on April 18, 2016 by Jazz Shaw

In case you thought the issues surrounding the prosecution of police officers in places such Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago had been swept away by the presidential election brouhaha, think again. National press coverage of these cases has waned because the primary races are far better click bait for the media, but on the local level the issue hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s intensified. At one end of the scale, trials in Baltimore continue for the cops involved in Freddie Gray’s death. At the other end of the spectrum, protests continue in Chicago and Cleveland over a lack of prosecution for cops involved in lethal force incidents.

One suggestion which seems to be gaining traction in SJW circles is the idea of having the states appoint special prosecutors to specifically handle cases of alleged police misconduct. At the Washington Post, Colin Taylor Ross argues the exact opposite, not because it would be a miscarriage of justice, but because special prosecutors might not be inspired to conduct a sufficiently vigorous pursuit.

The proposed solution: replace local prosecutors with independent, special prosecutors in police abuse cases. Many in the Black Lives Matter movement are for it. The Post is for it. Statehouses around the country have begun moving toward it.

And yet, future generations of reformers will look back in amazement at how easily well-intentioned advocates embraced a misguided, counterproductive policy that ceded local control over police accountability.

The crisis of faith in the criminal justice system is real, as is the inherent tension between cooperating with local police one day and prosecuting them the next. Completely removing that tension, however, would also mean needlessly crippling the political measures that local communities are beginning to use to force accountability.

The author is posing two different choices in how to handle the prosecution of law enforcement officers accused of improper actions here. One is the idea of having the states appoint a Special Prosecutor as I mentioned above. The other is to leave prosecutorial decisions not just at the local level, but in the hands of the voters. On the latter score, he notes that most prosecutors are directly elected by voters with the exception of a few states. The author cites examples in Ohio and Illinois where incumbent prosecutors were tossed out during the primaries after failing to bring cases against police officers involved in shootings.

Were I forced to pick one of these two routes I would have to agree with Ross that the decisions need to be made locally. First of all, instituting a statewide office for a person whose sole mission in life is to put cops in jail would set a horrible precedent. Also, somewhat in line with Ross’ argument, a locally elected official will be more in tune with the background and history of any cases which need to be considered and have a relationship with the concerned players in both the community and the government.

The main problem with this theory comes with the idea that the voters should somehow be seeking prosecutors who run on a promise to take more police officers to trial. Just like the idea of a special prosecutor, that goes against the entire concept of an even handed criminal justice system. Cops do go to trial when the evidence supports such actions. But in the vast majority of cases, officer shootings are either obviously justified or come down to split second decisions where juries tend to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. Suggesting that the voters somehow “deserve” a prosecutor who will bring more cases to trial which are ultimately lost doesn’t seem to be serving anyone’s interests.

The real question to address here isn’t who is doing the prosecuting. It’s whether or not we want police officers given the same rights under the law as anyone else, treating them as being no better or worse than the citizens they serve and protect, or if we’re looking for someone to conduct witch hunts to assuage public anger. If it’s the latter then you’re not solving an existing problem… you’re creating a new one.

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