Bridging the Divide

Some of the biggest stories of 2014—the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer, the failure to indict that officer and the subsequent assassination of two cops in Brooklyn—have fueled calls to reform the state’s criminal justice system. But while there is clamor for change, the essence of the problems and what to do about them varies depending on who you ask—a divide reflected in the striking breach between City Hall and the NYPD’s rank-and-file.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to address both the problems that led to a grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Garner, and the need for greater police protections following the slaying of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. The governor has suggested he would look at police training, improving security for law enforcement and changes to the grand jury system, including the role of district attorneys. Cuomo will likely rollout his plans at the State of the State address on Jan. 21.

“There are a lot of balls in the air right now,” said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Codes Committee. “And so I think we’re going to wait to see what the governor suggests, although we’re not duplicative of the things that he’s going to suggest.”

Still, Lentol is eyeing some reforms that he says would go a long way toward mending the public’s distrust of the police, and which he hopes to see action on this session.

One is a measure that would make it mandatory to videotape interrogations of suspects in custody.

“In the 21st century it is hard to believe that confessions are not taped, even though it is a requirement in many other jurisdictions other than New York,” Lentol said. “It would add a lot to the climate of what goes on when somebody is arrested, to determine whether or not there is a false confession that may lead to a wrongful conviction.”

Lentol also wants to reform police lineups. Currently, the officer who conducts a lineup is permitted to know the identity of the suspect, which critics say can lead to a manipulation of the outcome. In contrast, Lentol would like to see the implementation of a double-blind standard—where the organizing officer has no idea who the real suspect is.

Finally, Lentol would like to address the court’s process of discovery. As it now stands, prosecutors are not required to show their evidence to the defense until the eve of the trial—a rule critics say tips the scales in their favor because it prohibits lawyers from preparing an accurate defense beforehand. Lentol would like to see New York adopt an open-file policy, as other states have, which requires evidence be exchanged between the prosecution and the defense far in advance of a trial.

But, he says, the District Attorneys Association is opposed to most if not all of these measures: “They would rather change their practices to good practices than have legislation forcing them to do one thing or another,” he said. “Unfortunately the Republicans in the Senate have always agreed with them.”

One thing Lentol and Senate Republicans seem to agree on is that a special prosecutor is not needed when trying police officers accused of committing crimes, at least not in most cases.

“The authority already exists in the law for someone to appeal to the governor, and it’s been done before,” Lentol said. “But you can’t do it in every case because otherwise, what would you need to have district attorneys for?”

For their part, Senate Republicans will hold a series of public hearings, which, in the words of Senate Codes Committee Chair Michael Nozzolio, will aim to “strengthen our criminal justice laws to protect our citizens and police officers.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, in a previous interview with City & State, said that he did not see the need for any changes to the grand jury process. He said that he is not categorically opposed to grand jury reform, but stressed extreme caution.

“I’ve met with [Manhattan District Attorney] Cy Vance and others, and we’re going to have a discussion about potential reform,” Skelos said. “We’ll work with them. I’m not saying no to reform. What I’m saying is we have to move cautiously when we look at changing the grand jury system.”

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