All police killings of unarmed civilians will be investigated by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman -- not local district attorneys -- under an executive order signed Wednesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Effective immediately, the state's 62 district attorneys lose investigative and prosecutorial jurisdiction in every case when a police officer kills someone who isn't armed, or when in Schneiderman's opinion, "there is a significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous," according to the order. The governor said he expects the order to last a year while he pushes the State Legislature to take comprehensive action on probing killings by police.
Cuomo signed the order before an audience in Manhattan of black and Latino women whose loved ones have been killed by police over the past three decades. He said he felt compelled to act because of a "crisis of confidence" in the criminal justice system.
Critics of police misconduct argue that elected district attorneys cannot conduct fair probes of police because of their everyday working relationships with police officers as well as the support of prosecutors' political campaigns by police labor unions.
"The symbol of justice, Lady Justice, she wears a blindfold. She is blind, and she doesn't look at relationships and friendships and race," Cuomo said after signing the order.
Gesturing to the slain men's families -- including Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man whose death last July 17 set off nationwide protests -- Cuomo said: "They don't know that she was blind in these cases."
Protests were reignited in December after a grand jury led by the borough's then district attorney, Dan Donovan, did not indict the officer who put Garner in an apparent chokehold as he pleaded, "I can't breathe."
Nearly 24 hours before the signing ceremony, nearly all of the same families were shouting outside Cuomo's midtown office over what they said were "loopholes," such as a one-year time limit and restrictions on what cases Schneiderman could investigate.
But Cuomo met with them, and negotiations with his office continued until late Tuesday night, said Yul-san Liem, co-director of the Justice Committee, a group pushing for the order.
"We lost our sons and our daughters, sisters, our brothers, but we chose not to just lay down and give up," said Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed teenager killed by an NYPD cop in 2012 in his Bronx home. "We had to stand up and fight."
Under the order, Schneiderman's office is also empowered to do the actual investigative legwork in such killings instead of local police or sheriffs. The order doesn't apply to past incidents.
The NYPD's rank-and-file police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, has called Cuomo's order "unnecessary" given existing oversight.
Nassau County's acting district attorney, Madeline Singas, said in a statement, "While I have great faith in the professionalism of our local police departments and prosecutors across the state, Governor Cuomo's executive order appointing a special prosecutor to handle certain police shootings responds to a crisis in public confidence."
Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota's office didn't return messages seeking comment.