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Editorial: Attorney general adds credibility to probe of police shooting

The value of the policy giving the state attorney general authority over investigations into certain police shootings is coming into sharp, if unfortunate, focus in Buffalo. With Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman taking over the investigation into the death of Jose Hernandez-Rossy, everyone who is interested in a just outcome can have greater confidence in whatever conclusion is reached.

That isn’t a reflection on the good work that could be done by Buffalo police or Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr., but an acknowledgement of an indisputable fact of human nature: An arm’s-length investigation will always have more credibility than one conducted by those with a potential stake in the consequence, however thorough and open they might be.

The investigation surrounds the grievous injury sustained Sunday by a police officer, Joseph Acquino, and the subsequent fatal shooting of Hernandez-Rossy by Acquino’s partner, Officer Justin P. Tedesco. Initial reports were that Acquino had been shot, and his ear badly mangled. Hernandez-Rossy fled and Tedesco shot him.

As the investigation continued, it became less certain that Hernandez-Rossy had a gun. Instead, it is possible that as Acquino fought for control of the SUV that Hernandez-Rossy was driving, the airbag deployed, causing the officer’s injury. According to that theory, the device’s explosive inflation sounded like a gunshot, causing Acquino to call out for help and for Tedesco to respond accordingly, believing he was firing at a man who just shot his partner.

But the facts today are muddled. What happened is unknown and the level of public confidence in the conclusions of the investigation will directly influence what happens next. That’s why it is important that the attorney general take the lead.

Certainly, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda has over the years made clear his intolerance for police misconduct, and Flynn campaigned for office last year on a promise not to back away from difficult cases. But the rhythms of human nature would all but guarantee a greater level of suspicion if a locally run investigation concluded that the shooting was tragic but justified.

This kind of circumstance is the very reason Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an order in 2015 directing the attorney general to take over the investigation of cases in which unarmed people are killed by law enforcement officers. It’s a narrow focus that serves a valuable public purpose.

The order followed the death of Eric Garner, whom New York City police swarmed on Staten Island in 2014. Garner, who had been selling untaxed cigarettes and was unarmed, died after an officer put him in a chokehold. A public outcry ensued when a locally conducted investigation resulted in no charges, even after a medical examiner classified the death as a homicide.

“A criminal justice system doesn’t work without trust,” Cuomo observed, correctly, at the time. “We will be the first state in the country to acknowledge the problem and say we’re going to create an independent prosecutor who does not have that kind of connection with the organized police departments.”

It was an important step, one that protects good cops in difficult situations and innocent victims of excessive force. So, too, is the pending implementation of a policy requiring Buffalo police officers to wear body cameras. Though not always definitive in determining how any confrontation played out, the many times they do help will go far in ensuring that the public understands what happened and how those facts compare with subsequent decisions.

Also important, though, is for Buffalo police to put dashboard cameras in every cruiser. They provide a different and more stable perspective on some interactions with the public, which has an interest in knowing that good people – cops or civilians – are protected and that bad ones are held to account.

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