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Editorial: New York must act to reform killings by police

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

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's bid to be named special prosecutor for all cases in which police kill unarmed civilians is an attempt to reverse the crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system laid bare by Eric Garner's death.

But this is not a problem that lends itself to quick fixes, such as substituting one prosecutor for another. It demands a more comprehensive, systemic reform of how the criminal justice system treats blacks, including how it handles cases arising from deaths at the hands of police.

That should include an evaluation of how and when we use grand juries in this state and at the very least address the secrecy of the grand jury process, which undermines confidence in decisions not to indict. That was certainly the case with Garner. The grand jury's "no true bill" was completely at odds with the video of his death due to an apparent chokehold, which was the evidence the public saw.

Reformers should also take a critical look at how grand jury presentations are handled when the subject is a police officer who has killed. In routine criminal cases there is usually an arrest followed by a grand jury in which prosecutors seek an indictment. NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was never arrested. And the grand jury heard testimony for months, which is unusual when its only job is to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe a person committed a crime. Such special handling invites cynicism.

Having the governor name a special prosecutor on a case-by-case basis may be part of the solution. If so, the attorney general is the clear option. But designating Schneiderman now to fill that role temporarily until the State Legislature acts would dampen the urgency for comprehensive reform. If the legislature fails to act, tapping the attorney general might then be the best alternative.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised a broad, comprehensive review of the problem with an eye to crafting meaningful reform. That effort should include public input solicited through a series of hearings around the state.

The governor and the legislature must see this through, even when there are no longer protesters lying "dead" in the streets.