To members of the Georgia General Assembly

Introduce legislation to remove the grand jury and the local prosecutor from investigations of police misconduct.

In recent months, the role of the prosecutor and the grand jury system has come under intense scrutiny. The failure of grand juries to indict police officers has raised significant questions about the ability of local prosecutors to remain impartial in cases involving local law enforcement in the same jurisdiction.

Prosecutors rely on local police officers to make arrests, investigate cases, interrogate suspects, and testify at trial. Police officers, in turn, rely on prosecutors to convert their arrests into convictions and assist with investigations.

The prosecutor’s office is charged with responsibility for prosecutions in its jurisdiction. However, in most instances of fatalities involving officers, prosecutors generally use special grand juries to investigate and gather evidence before determining if an arrest and indictment are warranted. In cases involving alleged police misconduct, questions about prosecutors’ sympathies for the defendant — sympathies that may prevent the prosecutor from being an effective advocate for the state — provide an opportunity to consider alternatives to address perceived conflicts of interests.

The perception, real or perceived, is that local prosecutors have far too great of an interest to protect and justify the actions of local law enforcement. The perceived bias in the system has led to the erosion of public trust between law enforcement and local communities, suggesting that viable alternatives should be considered. This erosion of trust is harmful to both to the police officers interested in serving with dignity and honor, and to the citizens who must rely on them to promote peace and order in their communities.

What are possible solutions to this lack of trust?

Some states have established permanent special prosecutors’ offices. There are several approaches employed in states across the country that could serve as a model for reform in Georgia.

We could provide the attorney general additional prosecutorial authority over fatalities involving police as well as over allegations of police brutality or other abuse of authority. This would create permanent “special prosecutors” that are housed within the state office of the attorney general to provide a level of insulation from local law enforcement.

This oversight, investigation and prosecution of police or public official misconduct will promote trust in a system of fairness and impartiality.

An alternative used in some states is the adoption of “officer-involved-death” statutes. Such laws require that at least two independent investigators examine cases of police misconduct.

Automatic referral outside the jurisdiction in fatal cases involving police is another possibility. In this method, a prosecutor from outside the jurisdiction in question is automatically appointed to lead the investigation. The requirement of an independent, outside party could address perceived conflict of interest issues with local officials.

Whether by state statute requiring an out-of-jurisdiction investigator, or state executive action automatically assigning cases involving police to attorney generals or special prosecutors, our state should adopt practices to ensure that all investigations involving police are conducted by a neutral prosecutor — other than the district attorney’s office that typically works with the police department.

There also is the need for our state legislature to require mandatory reporting of all police shootings and allegations of abuse of authority to the FBI’s Crime Reporting Program. It is now voluntary and this must change.

Doing this will begin to promote the public’s right to know, and transparency will resolve much of the distrust in the public’s perception of investigations of police misconduct. Transparency will be the friend of the public and of good cops everywhere.

If we are serious about assuring our community is better able to cope with tragedy than those communities recently in the spotlight of violence, destruction, and rioting, we must take action to see that the system is open, fair, impartial and transparent. If we do not act to remove the obvious barriers to openness and transparency we will have complicity in the results of that failure.

The system that now exists is one that guarantees suspicion and distrust of any investigation that flows from it. It is simply a product of “that’s the way its always been done,” not of bad motive. This is no excuse in refusing to change it. I’m aware change alone will not prevent all evil but it’s a step forward.

Kenneth Fuller, a retired Rome attorney and former state senator, writes a regular column for the Rome News-Tribune. Readers may contact him at lawdawg1973@att.net.

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