Following several high-profile cases where New York police officers killed civilians, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate officer-involved deaths.
"A criminal justice system doesn't work without trust," Cuomo said, announcing the move. "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."
The governor said he decided to take executive action after state lawmakers failed to reach an agreement over his proposal for an independent prosecutor in the recent legislative session.
Tuesday's announcement comes just 10 days before the first anniversary of Eric Garner's death at the hands of a New York City Police officer. An unarmed black man, Garner was killed on Staten Island when an officer put him in a chokehold, a tactic not allowed under police rules. Garner's dying words — "I can't breathe" — became a rallying crime during anti-police brutality protests in New York and across the US.
Al O'Leary, a spokesman for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, New York's largest police union, said Cuomo's announcement was driven by its potential for "publicity value."
Cuomo revealed his plan as protesters urging police reform gathered in front of his office. Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, stood among the demonstrators holding a framed photograph of her late son. "We won't want to see this ever happen again," she said, according to the New York Times. "We want justice."
In December 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer involved in Garner's death, despite a medical examiner's ruling that it was a homicide. The case triggered outrage and increased public scrutiny of police killings, along with demands for more oversight.
The special prosecutor, current New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, will be empowered to investigate and prosecute police-related deaths of unarmed civilians. The executive order will last for a year, and Cuomo said he plans to renew it after that.
In an interview with WCNY's "The Capitol Pressroom," Cuomo cited the grand jury's decision in Garner's case as a driving factor in his decision, calling the case "troubling and disturbing, to say the least."
"We have a large segment of the population who believe they do not get justice," Cuomo said. "It's corrosive to society."
Cuomo also said the issue went beyond Garner's case. "This is not just Eric Garner… It's bigger and broader and with a fundamental genesis. We should look at the whole system. It's not going to be one quick fix," he said.
Garner's death was one of a slew of other officer-involved fatalities across the country that involved young, black men. Other non-indictments — including in the case of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri — sparked national outcries for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.
According to a data set compiled by the Guardian, 582 people have been killed by the police in the United States since the beginning of 2015. The victims were disproportionately black, and more than a fifth of them were unarmed.
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, released a statement contesting Cuomo's decision, calling it "unnecessary" because of "the many levels of oversight that already exists."
"Our concern," Lynch wrote in a statement, "is that there will be pressure on a special prosecutor to indict an officer for the sake of public perception and that does not serve the ends of justice."
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