Missouri lawmakers are looking at a proposal to require a special prosecutor in cases where charges or a complaint is filed against an officer involved in a shooting.
The measure follows several years of high profile incidents in which officers were acquitted after being charged in the deaths of African American men, notably the 2014 Michael Brown case in St. Louis.
The bill from House Democratic Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty of Kansas City is identical to one she sponsored last year which never received a hearing. She contends the measure would eliminate any conflict of interest stemming from close relationships between local prosecutors and law enforcement.
“That is the concern that the general public has, is that there is a conflict there because they work together” said McCann Beatty. “And quite frankly, I don’t think we want to put our prosecutors in that position, because they do rely on our police officers on a day-to-day basis to prosecute cases.”
The Proposal was heard by the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee Tuesday.
Freshman Democratic Representative Bruce Franks Jr. of St. Louis mentioned that city went through 12 consecutive months of officer involved shootings during 2014 and 2015.
He noted all but one of them were handled by the local prosecutor, which led to protests, while the single case handed over to a special prosecutor was free of unrest.
Sarah Baker with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri says county prosecutors are ill equipped to bring cases against members of their law enforcement agencies.
“It is bizarre to have a prosecutor and a police department working together, and then to have them investigate themselves” said Baker. “I think by removing the prosecutorial power from necessarily just that one area, then we’re creating a system in which justice can be better upheld.”
Supporters of the proposal think it brings more accountability to cases of officer involved shootings.
In opposition, Amy Fite with the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys contends the measure would diminish local control of prosecutions, and would be redundant.
“The proposal to strip local prosecutors of their ability to prosecute police involved shootings in unnecessary” said Fite. “In Missouri, there are ethical rules in place that prohibit prosecutors from handling cases where there is a conflict of interest. Every case a prosecutor handles is unique. And if a conflict of interest exists, then we already have the ability and the authority to go in and request that another attorney be appointed to prosecute the case.”
Fite also pushed back against the argument that local prosecutors have too close a relationship with law enforcement to objectively try officers. She said such as assumption means almost all cases would present a conflict of interest because prosecutors work closely with court employees and probation and parole officers, and often know large numbers of people who reside in their jurisdictions.
Franks Jr. took issue with a statement Fite made that the United States has the best judicial system in the world, saying “There are some people who would beg to differ.”
After the exchange, the Committee’s Republican chairman, Don Phillips of Kimberling City, made an effort to dispute Franks Jr.’s statement on America’s judicial standing.
“I think one of our committee member’s, you might want to take on the project of studying, and coming back to us with what criminal justice system outweighs the United States of America” said Phillips. “I’d love to see that country.”
The committee could vote on the proposal as early as next week.