But who will guard the guardians? On county prosecutors, grand juries, and indicting police officers

With the passage of another week, there’s another case of a grand jury failing to indict a police officer who killed another African-American citizen, Eric Gardner. In the New York case, the coroner ruled the death a homicide and the whole incident was caught on video. The New York Times provided a concise summary of the events that led to Mr. Garner’s death.

Now, another wave of protests has ensued, and a new waves of memes has appeared, including Mr. Garner’s words, “It stops today!” (a call for an end to police harassment/abuse).

But until grand juries more readily indict officers, it is hard to envision it stopping. An indictment is no guarantee of a conviction, but no officer wants to risk the reputational stain that a trial brings, so an indictment in itself is important in such cases.

As I noted in the post on Ferguson, I suspect the problem is less the grand jury’s composition/biases and more the case put before it. Grand juries are famous for indicting at will, yet they show reluctance to indict in these particular cases, including the case of Mr. Garner, where they appear to have become fixated on Garner resisting arrest. What makes police indictments different is that in those cases, the same county prosecutor who relies on police testimony to get indictments/convictions must now turn against that police force. This seems an untenable conflict of interest and suggests the need for an alternative to the county prosecutor as the person who brings charges.

I’m hoping this post shakes loose some unheralded examples of such alternatives, as I have yet to hear of one in common use. Obvious alternatives include: having a prosecutor from a different county handle the case; having a federal prosecutor handle these cases; or expanding the role in these cases for civilian police review boards, such as the one established in Chicago in 2007.

Short of such changes, it’s hard to believe that fiddling with jury composition, adding more police video cameras, or other tweaks will make much difference. In the end, if the prosecutor has a conflict of interest (i.e., a stronger incentive to maintain good relations with the police department than an interest in securing an indictment), the pattern will keep repeating in cases such as these.


About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Grand juries, Jury structure and reform, Social/political impact of juries, Verdicts juries reach. Bookmark the permalink.

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