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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Risks abound for Schneiderman as special prosecutor

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was elected

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was elected to office on Nov. 2, 2010. Credit: Getty/Andrew Burton

Naturally, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman denies harboring any concerns about the political hazards of conducting inquiries into police killings of unarmed civilians.

When the question arose at a news conference yesterday in Manhattan, he began his reply with a simple "No." Then he quickly added that his office carefully deals with thousands of active cases, and all new ones will be "handled responsibly and impartially and hopefully with as little fanfare as possible."

Still, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's new order making Schneiderman a special prosecutor in these cases has clear potential to force the liberal Democrat into choices that may frustrate other law enforcers, or communities of color, or relatives of the deceased.

So starting this week, one middle-of-the-night phone call could propel the 60-year-old attorney general into the choppiest waters of his public career. No elected official controls the street. Fatal encounters differ from consumer lawsuits or financial probes, the stuff on which attorneys general ordinarily build their resumes.

Schneiderman, let it be noted, asked for this role.

He did so at the height of heated protests over the failure of a Staten Island grand jury, conducted by then-District Attorney Dan Donovan, to charge any officers in the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner.

Even from outside, it is easy to see where a different prosecutor would have taken a different path on that one. Its facts contrast with the tragedy months later of unarmed civilian Akai Gurley -- whose accidental death by a police bullet in Brooklyn led District Attorney Kenneth Thompson to indict a rookie police officer. That case is still pending.

Cuomo suggested Wednesday that his order is aimed at removing any suspicion that the close working relationships between district attorneys and police around the state threaten to bias the results.

The order lasts a year. While it is portrayed as a stopgap measure until more permanent legislation can be agreed on, that doesn't ease the potential pressure on Schneiderman.

Risks abound. If the unit's probe of a fatal incident produces no charges, some will feel dissatisfied. But if an indictment is filed that falls short of a conviction, it might be viewed as weak and politically driven.

For their part, district attorneys dislike ceding turf. Their state association is due to hear from Schneiderman in a speech in Saratoga Friday. Similar opposition from district attorneys met a proposal earlier this year from the state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, for members of the bench to supervise grand jury proceedings in cases involving fatal police encounters.

"I'm confident we'll have the cooperation of the district attorneys and local law enforcement across the state," said Schneiderman, who in his re-election race last year drew endorsement from various police unions. He praised the district attorneys' dedication and professionalism but also quoted Felix Frankfurter, a mid-20th century Supreme Court justice, on the importance of the "appearance of justice."

Schneiderman announced his "special investigations and prosecutions unit" run by top deputies and staffed as needed. "I hope we will not need many people because I hope we will not have fatalities," he said.

Deputy Executive Attorney General Alvin Bragg, tapped to lead the unit, said: "I am humbled by the gravity of the cases we've been called upon to investigate." He vowed to follow the facts as always.

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