ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate police killings drew criticism Thursday from law-enforcement unions, who questioned whether the Democrat’s blanket policy is appropriate.
Cuomo issued an executive order Wednesday requiring state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to step in for the local district attorney to investigate — and if necessary, prosecute — police officers involved in the death of an unarmed civilian.
The move by Cuomo was the result of several high-profile incidents across the nation in recent years in which a police officer avoided indictment, including the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man who died after being placed in a chokehold-like maneuver by a white officer.
But on Thursday, some police unions questioned why Cuomo made the change and whether it’s appropriate for him to single law enforcement out.
“Although we agree the governor is well within his rights to do so, it is the PBA’s perspective that the system that was in place had been working adequately,” said Thomas Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers PBA. “It’s unfortunate that during these times rules have to be made or changed based on our chosen profession as law enforcement officers.”
Several district attorneys had previously expressed concern over Cuomo’s plan, whichhe had promised in June after he and state lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on a permanent, legislative solution.
As of Thursday afternoon, the state District Attorneys Association had not yet issued a formal statement on Cuomo’s executive order.
But Gerald Mollen, the Broome County district attorney and president-elect of the statewide group, told The New York Times he didn’t see why Cuomo was curtailing their duties.
“We certainly don’t see any reason why the 62 elected attorneys should have their responsibility taken from them,” Mollen said, according to the Times.
Mollen, who was in Saratoga Springs for the District Attorneys Association’s summer conference, did not return a phone call or email Thursday.
Schneiderman had lobbied Cuomo to grant him special prosecutor powers. At a news conference Thursday, the Democrat pledged to cooperate with local prosecutors in the event that his office does have to take up a police-involved case.
On Thursday, Schneiderman set up a group of attorneys to handle any police cases that come his way, with the team being led by Alvin Bragg, an executive deputy attorney general who was previously a federal prosecutor.
The team also includes Paul Clyne, a former Albany County district attorney, and three other staffers who have prosecutorial experience.
“I’m confident we’ll have the cooperation of the district attorneys and of local law enforcement in this state,” Schneiderman said.
In an interview Wednesday night on MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton,”Cuomo said appointing Schneiderman as special prosecutor “helps restore trust in the system.”
“If the police say it is unnecessary, I’ll take that,” Cuomo said. “From their point of view, maybe it’s unnecessary. From the minority communities and the communities who have lost trust, it’s not unnecessary.”
Families of those who have been killed in police-involved incidents had urged Cuomo to take action, including Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother. In addition to Garner’s case onStaten Island, several high-profile incidents in the lower Hudson Valley spurred controversy when police officers weren;tindictment.
They see potential for a conflict of interest on the part of district attorneys, who would have to present evidence against police officers to a grand jury while maintaining a close working relationship with law enforcement.
In a statement, Yul-san Liem and Loyda Colon, co-directors of the Justice Committee, a group that helped organize the push for a special prosecutor, said Cuomo’s order is “an important step in the right direction to ending the systemic conflict of interest that exists for local DAs.”
“We must ensure that the implementation of the executive order ensures adequate resources for success and that legislation is passed to establish a permanent independent prosecutor for all cases of police killings and deaths in police custody,” Colon and Liem said in the joint statement.
Michael Palladino, president of the NYS Association of PBAs, said Cuomo’s blanket order was far too broad. The Association of PBAs is a collection of downstate police unions.
The order automatically applies in every incident in which a police officer kills an unarmed civilian; if there’s a question over whether the civilian was armed, the attorney general can choose to step in.
Under those circumstances, the case of recently recaptured inmate David Sweat — who was shot by State Troopers after escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facility — would have gone to Schneiderman had Sweat died, Palladino noted.
Sweat, a convicted cop killer who was unarmed when he was recaptured, was shot twice in the torso but ultimately survived.
“The root to all of the controversial police events is always resisting arrest,” Palladino said. “The answer is not to continually throw legislative and judicial landmines in front of the men and women and law enforcement.”