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Special prosecutor in police killings will help dispel mistrust of authorities

New York’s prosecutors call Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order appointing a special prosecutor for certain police shootings “gravely flawed.” It’s not. It’s a reasonable response to a real issue. There might be other appropriate and even better responses than the governor’s, but that’s where the discussion should be focused.

Cuomo’s executive order vests the Attorney General’s Office with the power to investigate fatal shootings by police of unarmed citizens or in cases where there is a question whether a civilian was armed and dangerous. Other than that, local district attorneys retain their authority to investigate police as events dictate.

Start by agreeing with Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III that most police officers are honest men and women. They are doing important, sometimes hazardous, work and generally deserve the support of the community.

But when that minority of officers crosses the line, the consequences can be crushing. We know it happens, because it’s happened in Buffalo. Officers here have been accused of helping to cover up a homicide. Cellphone cameras have recorded them physically abusing citizens for no apparent reason other than a wrongheaded sense of entitlement.

That, alone, undermines the trust that is necessary between police officers and the citizens they are sworn to protect. But when confrontations turn fatal, as they have in Cleveland, Staten Island, Ferguson, Mo., and, most horrifically, in North Charleston, S.C., new layers of mistrust accumulate.

When resulting investigations produce no charges against police – even in cases where that appears appropriate – public suspicion is inevitable and can become poisonous. That dynamic requires a response. Cuomo’s executive order provides one.

The problem it addresses is the natural fear that the close relationship between prosecutors and police will influence a decision on how aggressively to investigate any such death. That is what played out last year in Staten Island, when police swarmed over Eric Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes. He protested that he couldn’t breathe and soon died. No police were charged.

Many people from across the political spectrum were disturbed at the lack of charges. Did the district attorney really not want to prosecute? It’s a normal question and prosecutors know it: They routinely challenge court witnesses who may have a conflict of interest.

That’s the public value of vesting that authority elsewhere. It relieves district attorneys of that natural suspicion and does so at a time when concern about police officers abusing their authority is already near the boiling point.

There may be better solutions than Cuomo’s and, in fact, the state District Attorneys Association proposed its own, not-unreasonable approach. It would be worth the effort for the state and prosecutors to continue exploring the matter to see if they can find the solution that best serves the public and the cause of justice.

In the meantime, Cuomo has done what he can to provide a reasonable and limited response to an issue that demands attention and that will not simply go away.

Laws and systems are meant, in some way, to overcome the sometimes unhelpful influences of human nature. Police and prosecutors are human, too. It’s a good idea to acknowledge in some formal way that their relationship can create conflicts with the important work required of them.