Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order to appoint New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a special prosecutor who will investigate cases where civilians are killed by police officers. Cuomo, who faced pressure from activists regarding promises of criminal justice reform following the death of Eric Garner, issued the order after a bill that would have had a similar effect failed in the legislature.
Last Friday, July 17, marked one year since Garner was killed by a chokehold during his arrest on Staten Island. After a grand jury led by District Attorney Daniel Donovan declined to indict the police officer involved, protestors argued that the criminal justice system was fundamentally flawed—that the DA works too closely with local police departments, allowing for a “historic lack of police accountability.”
Westchester County has its own history of police-related civilian deaths: in 2010, Pace University football player Danroy Henry Jr. was shot and killed by a Pleasantville Police officer during an altercation outside a Thornwood bar. Henry, 20, was driving away from the bar when Officer Aaron Hess approached the vehicle. Hess was struck by the car, landed on the hood, and discharged his weapon, killing Henry and injuring another man in the car, Brandon Cox. After extensive investigation, prosecutors determined that the evidence did not prove criminal intent, and no charges were filed against Hess. The Henry family is currently pursuing a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The NAACP commended Cuomo on his appointment of Schneiderman. “We are taking Governor Cuomo at his word and are fully supportive,” said Joan Grangenois-Thomas, president of the Port Chester/Rye NAACP chapter. Grangenois-Thomas explained that the New York State Metropolitan Conference of the NAACP has been working with Cuomo to gain support for the order, and “will continue to make sure he stands by his word.”
One of the main goals of the appointment of a special prosecutor is the restoration of trust in policing and the criminal justice system. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done…this is one step in many that need to be taken in order to return confidence,” said Grangenois-Thomas. “It’s a positive step forward.”
On the other hand, opponents of the order argue that the appointment of a special prosecutor was the wrong way to handle the situation. Detective Keith Olson, president of the Yonkers Police Benevolent Association, said he thought the appointment was “a mistake” and is concerned that the order was put forth for the purpose of indicting officers rather than seeking justice. “Things of this nature should be legislative. There were some proposals made, and our elected officials in the assembly and the senate bounced some ideas around. Ultimately those who were elected to represent the people chose not to move anything forward. I think this is just circumventing the process,” he said. “I think the goal should always be to seek justice, and I think that the process we had, which was in the hands of the DA’s office, worked.”
New York State is the first and only state in the country to implement such a system for prosecuting cases involving civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers.