With the new year, comes new legislation, including one California law that is setting a new precedent for the possibility of justice.
On Jan. 1 Senate Bill 227 went into effect. Proposed by Sen. Holly Mitchell from Los Angeles and signed into law in by Gov. Jerry Brown Aug. 11, it bans grand jury hearing for officer-involved shootings, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why SB 227 makes sense,” Mitchell told the Times. “The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”
Despite eyewitness accounts, video evidence, and reports of deliberate negligence, non-indictments for killings by police abound. Through this bill, California is the first state to pass legislation to change this.
The lack of accountability in these cases points to how the criminal justice system protects officers, even when they commit a crime themselves. According to the Wall Street Journal, a study by Bowling Green State University found that only 42 officers were charged for on-duty shootings over seven years compared to over 2,700 reported justified homicides.
But one of the major mechanisms that enables this trend is the use of grand juries, specifically because it lets prosecutors off the hook. An indictment only needs probable cause, or more simply, reasonable grounds to pursue charges. The threshold is said to be so low that, a prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich” if they wanted. And yet, time and time again, that standard fails to apply to police officers, particularly those involved in the killings of black people.
We most recently saw this in the case against Cleveland Police Officers involved in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Nov. 2014. Not only Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGuinty fail to get an indictment, but many of his actions leading up to the grand jury hearing showed he was not invested in that as a possibility. He refused the request for a special prosecutor and consistently derided the Rice family.
By taking grand juries out of the equation, prosecutors like McGuinty will have to take responsibility for how they actively foreclose justice rather than using grand juries as an ethical and moral loophole.
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