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N.Y. Senate Dems seek state prosecutor for fatal confrontations with police

Protesters rallying against a grand jury's decision not

Protesters rallying against a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner chant before staging a "die-in" at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Manhattan. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

ALBANY -- Senate Democrats, citing decades of deep mistrust of local law enforcement in African-American communities, Tuesday called for a permanent, full-time state prosecutor to investigate fatal confrontations with police, such as the one that led to Eric Garner's death.

"You can't have a system investigating itself," said Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Queens).

The proposal is the first in New York seeking a permanent prosecutor as a response to Garner and other African-American and Latino suspects who died as a result of police confrontations. Democrats said the proposal would remove a conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict between prosecutors and the police.

Supporters of changing the system recite a list of African-American and Latino suspects killed by police gunfire in cases in which no police officers were charged.

"I have felt victimized by fear when my children walk out the door," said Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Bronx), a mother and grandmother. "The number of deaths of unarmed black people has left an indelible mark on our black communities."

A grand jury in Staten Island this month decided against charging a police officer in the apparent chokehold death of Garner in July. Earlier this month, a Missouri grand jury decided against charging a police officer in the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.

The grand jury system involves a secret session of jurors run by a prosecutor who explains the evidence and can seek an indictment. There is no role for the defense attorney and no cross-examination of witnesses.

Supporters of the current system said prosecutors are directly responsible to voters, who could throw them out of office for failing to combat excessive force by police.

"Why would the people's choice to be their elected law enforcement officer be disqualified in favor of some political appointment?" said Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, a Republican who is president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association.

"I'm completely open to discussing what kind of special prosecutor program might be instituted," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. "But be aware of what you ask for. Special prosecutors who have been reported in the past are accountable to no one," Vance told NBC's "Meet the Press" in a transcript provided Tuesday by the prosecutor's office.

There was no immediate comment Tuesday from the Republican majority, which will control legislation.

The state Division of Criminal Justice Services is now making technical changes to its system to start collecting data statewide that more closely track police shootings and other cases of alleged excessive force, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

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