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Police Brutality: Crucial Background

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First, Ian Millhiser on the Supreme Court decision that made it much easier for police officers such as the one that killed Eric Garner to escape legal sanction:

Yet the justices’ decision in Lyons likely played a role in allowing police chokeholds to continue to this day. At the very least, Lyons made it much, much harder for victims of these chokeholds to ensure that other people were not victimized in the future.

Worse, Lyons was just one of many individuals that Los Angeles police targeted with a chokehold, often with fatal results. According to law professor and dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s book The Case Against the Supreme Court, Lyons discovered that sixteen people died after being choked by an LAPD officer, almost all of whom were black men. When police Chief Daryl Gates was asked why almost all of these fatal chokeholds involved African Americans, Gates replied that the “veins or arteries of blacks do not open up as fast as they do in normal people.”

Yet the story of Adolph Lyons and the case that bears his name is also the story of how arcane legal doctrines can reshape decades of police practices. Lyons was a 5-4 decision. If just one more justice had sided with Mr. Lyons, it may have enabled the courts to prevent cases like Garner’s from ever happening.

I will observe at this point that 3 of the five justices in the majority (as well as, admittedly, one dissenter) were appointed by the Last Liberal President, Richard Nixon.

Brian Beutler is also making sense here:

If prosecutors and police departments are too tightly linked for due process to mean anything, then puncturing the impunity requires breaking the link.

One way to do this would be for citizens at state and local levels, through ballot initiatives, to take the authority for presenting evidence of police misconduct to grand juries out of the hands of local prosecutors. That authority could be handed to publicly accountable review boards staffed with civilian lawyers from within the jurisdiction, or to special prosecutors’ offices.

The point would be to eliminate the conflict of interest that arises—as it did in Ferguson and Staten Island—when local prosecutors investigate the officers on whom they rely for evidence, cooperation, and political endorsements.

“I think it’s viable,” Ronald Wright, a distinguished professor of criminal law at Wake Forest University told me by phone Wednesday evening. “You could revise state law so that you could describe the category of cases where the appointment of a special prosecutor is mandatory. The governor shall appoint a special prosecutor in the possible criminal wrongdoing by police officer in jurisdiction with the same boundary as the district attorney. You could have an automatic trigger.”

Governors would also face pro-police political pressures, needless to say, but it’s hard to believe this wouldn’t be an improvement.

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