Democratic bill calling for independent reviews of fatal police shootings gaining support

By Doug G. Ware  |  Dec. 29, 2015 at 4:22 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- In the wake of recent deadly police shootings, Democratic legislation that would encourage states to use independent prosecutors is picking up steam in the House of Representatives.

Two Democrats introduced legislation earlier this year that would limit federal funding for states that don't bring in independent investigators to probe fatal police shootings. The sponsors, Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Lacy Clay, D-Mo., argue that local prosecutors investigating local police can often present a serious conflict of interest.

Their measure has not been passed, but Monday's development in the Tamir Rice shooting prompted lawmakers to revisit the issue.

"We need reform. Asking local prosecutors to investigate the same local police with whom they work so closely is a conflict of interest," Cohen said in a statement. "Even if they handle such investigations appropriately, there will continue to be a perception of bias."

Ohio prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty on Monday announced that no state charges will be filed against two police officers involved in the Rice shooting. Rice, 12, was shot and killed while carrying a realistic-looking airsoft pistol at a Cleveland area park.

"It was a 'perfect storm of human error' but did not equal criminal activity by the officers involved," McGinty said.

The Rice Family's attorney responded by saying McGinty's office had "manipulated" and "abused" the grand jury process in the case -- accusations that some Democratic lawmakers believe would be less likely with independent investigators.

Clay, who co-sponsored the legislation with Cohen in May, has long campaigned for transparency in deadly police shootings -- particularly since the death of Michael Brown in his home state in August 2014.

The Cohen-Clay measure further gained traction this month when it was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, which cited the Laquan McDonald case.

McDonald, 17, was allegedly shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke in October 2014 during a confrontation in which police said the teen had a knife. Tuesday, Van Dyke pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder.

The head of the National Association of Police Organizations has said he has concerns about the Cohen-Clay proposal -- which echoes the feelings of other police advocates, who fear that unjustified scrutinization and politicization of officer-involved shootings will put police departments and their officers in a no-win situation.

"There is a risk that decisions to prosecute would be made based on politics, not on the law and admissible evidence," Executive Director Johnson wrote in a letter to Rep. Cohen earlier this year. "NAPO is concerned that an officer would be indicted, even if he/she did nothing wrong."

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