Thursday, December 04, 2014

The problem is not just the police

Another thing that the decisions not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown and the decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner have in common are that in each case the prosecutor did something unusual. Instead of just presenting the evidence in favor of prosecution to the grand jury (which is how cases are normally presented to grand juries), the prosecutors each also presented exculpatory evidence, including in both cases, extensive testimony from the accused officer. That is not what normally happens before a grand jury in other cases. In fact, because they only hear one side, grand juries almost never refuse to indict anyone. But they did not hear only one side in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases. Rather, they were presented with evidence slanted in favor of the accused officer. And that is why they did what they did.

Much of the outrage generated by these cases has been focused on the police. But part of the reason police are not called into account for the conduct is because of how the prosecutors handle this case. Prosecutors' offices work closely with police departments. The police supply much of the evidence and some of the key witnesses that prosecutors rely upon when they prosecute most of their cases. In that sense it is understandable that prosecutors would identify with the police and see themselves as being on the same side. But that pro-police bias is going to make it very hard for prosecutors to do their job when police are the accused. That is what I think happened in the Wilson and Pantaleo cases. And that is why both officers were not charged.