Race, Rhetoric and Rational Reform

unnamedBy John Verni

The murder of two NYC police officers by a black man to avenge the death of two black men at the hands of the police is the latest tragedy in a recent deterioration in race relations in this country. The rhetoric has been heated over the last few weeks between the politicians, the protestors, the police unions, and the press. The root causes of the tensions between the police and the minority community are many and complex and not easily solved. But where does all this rhetoric get us? Where do we go from here? Are there any rational reforms that can be made?

The sparks that lit the recent fire were the decisions of the grand juries not to indicted the police officers in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. In both cases there were claims of an inherent bias that the prosecutors who presented the cases to the Grand Jury have in favor of the police officers they work with everyday. Any “no true bill” therefore becomes suspect. There have been calls for an independent prosecutor in such cases.

In New York, Attorney General Eric Scheiderman has suggested that he should be that independent prosecutor. This is a terrible idea on many levels. In general, we do not want an Attorney General who is subject to the political pressures of facing the electorate every 4 years to be deciding cases based upon political winds, not the rule of law. Such a structure would lead to mob rule with facts decided based on the volume in the public square rather than the facts presented in a courtroom. A Special Prosecutor’s Office, as we have seen in the past, is also subject to the same politics in selection and decision-making, and is ultimately second-guessed by the public.

Rational Reform

The answer is the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division in the State of New York was established under the New York State Constitution to be both the first court of appellate review and a court with certain de novo review powers meaning it can return cases to lower courts and other government entities for further fact-finding.

A rational reform would require any Grand Jury proceeding involving the death of a citizen at the hands of the police to be immediately reviewed by the Appellate Division. Normally, once a “no true bill” is voted, the case is over and not appealable. As we have seen, such a “no true bill” leads to these calls of a conflict in interest between the prosecutors and the police which in turn can remain to simmer with no adequate channel for review or redress. Under this proposal, the case would be presented by the District Attorney’s Office to a Grand Jury and immediately reviewed by the Appellate Division before a final decision either way can be delivered. If the Appellate Division deems necessary, the case can even be sent back for further fact finding or different instructions on the law.

The Appellate Division courts in New York State are courts in which a five judge panel reviews the evidence and the law and either upholds or overturns the lower court, or in this case the Grand Jury’s decision. The judges of the Appellate Division are judges serving 14 year terms and then chosen for the Appellate Division after going through a judicial screening committee and being referred to the Governor for selection. These are the most experienced judges in the state and are much more removed from the political process than the Attorney General. The Appellate Division is therefore much more likely to decide cases based upon the facts and the law rather than politics.

John Verni is host of “Stuck in the Middle”, a local radio show on WVOX discussing politics from “middle of the road.” John is an attorney, a former assistant district attorney in Westchester County, and a senior legal correspondent for WVOX.

It’s Time To Stand With Our Police

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My community, New Rochelle, NY, has an excellent police department. My family is pleased with the safety we enjoy thanks to the brave men and women in blue. I serve as a Westchester County Legislator and am also impressed by the excellent work of the Westchester County police. The job of police officer is as difficult as any in our society. Each day when police officers leave their homes, they put their lives on the line to protect all of us. In their duties, the police deal with the most evil aspects of our society: murder, assault, human trafficking & prostitution, domestic violence, drugs and others, which must negatively impact them in various ways. And yet, they keep heading out there to protect us. Most police officers do their jobs very well. Yes, mistakes are made and it’s a tough job to perform perfectly all the time. And yes, there are some bad cops out there, as in any profession. The officers that make mistakes can be punished in a court of law or through internal discipline procedures, and we certainly hear about cops being punished in the media.

I believe we should stand with our police when they are unfairly criticized – and that time is now. You cannot watch the protesters from Ferguson to New York City (“NYC”) and not see examples of hatred towards police. Not every protester is bashing cops, but many are. This past weekend in NYC, protesters were caught chanting: “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” It’s impossible to understand how anyone could chant such hateful words.

We all must support freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble to protest about issues, and many people are doing so across the country. However, other protesters are crossing the line into violence and other illegal actions. In NYC this past weekend, we had a protester mob attack two police lieutenants.  The New York Post reported:

“The violence erupted shortly after the two lieutenants attempted to stop one of the angry agitators from hurling a garbage can at other cops standing in the walkway below, police said.

That’s when other demonstrators intervened and attacked the officers — knocking them to the ground and kicking and punching them before trying to steal their jackets and radios, according to police.”

Mayor DeBlasio recently stated, “People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives . . . The relationship between police and community has to change.” Is this based on empirical research? No, it’s not. It’s just his flawed opinion. His views are at odds with the fact that over the past 25 years the NYC police have made it the safest big city in our country (confirmed on Politifact.com) and crime deceased in every neighborhood. And by the way Mr. Mayor, who wrongly stands with the protesters instead of the police, I personally don’t know a single person that is not fully aware that “black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.” As a Catholic, my faith has taught me this fundamental truth since I was a little boy. It’s never been in doubt to the vast majority of New Yorkers.

Like so many others, I’m troubled by the Eric Garner video. To me, Mr. Garner’s crime was minimal and he did not appear to be resisting arrest that much. But as an attorney, I respect the rule of law and recognize that those accused of a crime may rely on their constitutional rights in their defense. I and all the protesters were not on the grand jury, and we did not review all the evidence presented. Regardless of our opinion on the grand jury’s actions, we must accept the result of their deliberations, while being saddened by the death of Mr. Garner.

So while it appears mistakes were made by the police in the Garner death, I don’t believe their actions can be deemed racist in any way, and it does not appear they intended to kill Mr. Garner. I expect that the police officer who caused the death will face police discipline and sanctions. But I also noticed on the news another group of protesters chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, these racists cops have got to go!” Who are the racist cops they are referring to? I don’t have an answer.

This cop bashing is wrong in the face of the facts and a slander of many brave police officers regularly placed in dangerous situations to protect us. It’s time to vocally stand with our police against reckless and erroneous attacks – stand with them on social media and when you hear someone slandering them, and also by saying “Thank You” when you see a police officer protecting our streets. I will do so right now – thank you to the New Rochelle and Westchester County police for protecting my community and my family so well.

Jim Maisano
Jim@FreeVoter.com