This week, the nation is grieving the death of yet another African American man at the hands of local law enforcement caused by what appears to have been the use of excessive and deadly force against an unarmed citizen. Eric Garner died six months ago, but we mourn today because the man who killed him will get away with it.
A New York grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo and other participants in the homicide of Eric Garner, despite video evidence that clearly shows Officer Pantaleo using a banned chokehold to violently take down Eric Garner, at which point Garner’s increasingly desperate and fading pleas of “I can’t breathe” were callously ignored.
The result, according to the coroner, was a deprivation of oxygen that caused Garner’s death. And, like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the violent confrontation that led to his death arose from an alleged minor crime involving a small amount of tobacco (not contraband!).
That is why today I introduced the Grand Jury Reform Act, H.R 5830. This bill will prohibit the use of a secret grand jury process when determining whether a police officer should be prosecuted for wrongfully killing a person while in the line of duty.
I have always been a strong supporter of the law enforcement community. After all, police officers, who are charged with keeping the peace in our communities, are often called upon to put their lives on the line to protect and serve the people. The overwhelming majority of our police officers are decent, honorable professionals — men and women earnestly working to protect us.
And the numbers of extra judicial killings by police officers are probably inaccurate because the federal government does not compile a central data base of, or require state and local law enforcement to report, civilian deaths caused by the use of deadly force by police.
In the wake of the killings of unarmed black men Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others, and the historical and sometimes outrageous refusal to prosecute their killers, unprecedented protests have broken out across the country.
The protesters demand an end to what is perceived as unequal justice, and that those who are responsible for the use of excessive force be brought to justice. They do not trust a secret grand jury system that is so clearly broken.
The “Grand Jury Reform Act” will help restore that trust. No longer will communities have to rely on the secret and biased grand jury process to see justice in instances of police killings. The law would require the appointment of a special prosecutor charged with conducting a probable cause hearing open to the public, when there exists reasonable grounds to believe that a person was wrongfully killed by the police.
The “Grand Jury Reform Act” also specifies that in order for local law enforcement agencies to receive federal funding, they would have to comply with this new process.
Passage of this bill would replace the secretive grand jury process with a special prosecutor/open court, probable cause inquiry that would help restore trust in our justice system, while ensuring a fair process for all parties.