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Cuomo: Criminal justice to become more accountable; police to be more protected (Updates)

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during a news conference

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, at Hofstra University where he announced a proposal to provide credits to homeowners and renters impacted by high property tax bills. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

(Updates with comment from Senate Democratic leader, bill sponsor in Independent Democratic Conference)

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said statewide legislation is being crafted to provide more public accountability to the grand jury system in police confrontations with suspects, as well as to better protect police and the survivors of slain cops.

He indicated Wednesday that he wouldn’t support opening up the secretive grand jury system to public view. That closed-door procedure has been the target of protests after no charges were filed against police in fatal shootings of African-American suspects in Missouri and in New York City. But Cuomo said transparency is needed.

“I’m looking for ways to provide more confidence in the criminal justice system,” Cuomo told reporters at Hofstra University after a public event Wednesday.

“Secrecy is designed for obvious protections,” he said, referring to concerns for witnesses, victims, informants and police procedure in the closed courtrooms.

“The challenge for us is how do you have transparency so people can understand what went on, and it isn’t a ‘black box,’” Cuomo said. “People can see what happened without violating individuals’ rights and protections, and that’s what we’re working through.”

But Cuomo equally emphasized the need to protect police, who have been criticized in protests since a grand jury recently decided against charging a police officer in the July death of Eric Garner when he was detained in Staten Island.

“The second thing we have to do is, the police department has to feel respected and protected. Why? Because they deserve it,” Cuomo said.

“You walk out of that house every day and your family doesn’t know if you’ll walk back,” he said.

He referred to the assassination of two New York City police officers in their patrol car by an African-American gunman who claimed to be meting out retribution for the Garner decision.

“What can we learn from that in terms of safety, in terms of better [bulletproof] vests, in terms of bulletproof glass?” Cuomo said.

He also said families of slain officers need to be better compensated, including help in paying mortgages and college tuition.

“If they are willing to give their life to protect New Yorkers, I think New Yorkers should be in a position to do the right thing for their family,” Cuomo said.

"This is something that we are certainly going to want to address early on in the session,” said Senate Democratic conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers). “We have to look at it from all sides -- protecting our law enforcement while at the same time ensuring everyone feels the safeguards of the criminal justice system.”

Her conference’s bill would create a special investigations office to handle civilians who die in police confrontations and funding for cameras worn by police.

Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), introduced her bill Wednesday. It also seeks to preserve the centuries-old secrecy of the grand jury system to protect witnesses, victims, and evidence, but she wants the public to get a better sense of the closed-door process.

“Once a grand jury has issued its findings, upon request by an organization, a media outlet or others, the district attorney should be able to release the findings of the grand jury, but redacting certain information to protect the privacy and secrecy of individuals involved,” said Savino of the Independent Democratic Conference.

“They might still not agree with the decision, but they might have a better understanding,” she said of groups protesting the current system. “What you have right now is mistrust by some ... and that is far more damaging to our criminal justice system.”

The Senate's Republican majority and the Assembly's Democratic majority had no immediate comment.

Cuomo is expected to raise the issue again in his combined State of the State and budget address on Jan. 21.

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