« Independent Oversight

Policy 11: Special or Independent Prosecutors

When trying criminal defendants, district attorneys rely on testimony and evidence provided by police officers, many of whom they work with regularly. These relationships create conflicts of interest when prosecutors must determine whether and how to prosecute police officers accused of criminal acts.

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A special, or independent, prosecutor – someone external to the local jurisdiction and local governmental departments – should be assigned to investigate and determine whether criminal charges should be filed against a police officer, especially in cases where officers use force against civilians. Further, the special prosecutor should be provided with qualified investigators and resources to eliminate reliance on information provided by or investigations led by local police — another potential conflict of interest. The White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing reiterated the need for independent prosecutors in cases of police involved killings.

In Practice

After John Crawford, a Black man, was gunned down by white police officers in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Wal-Mart because he was holding a BB gun, organizations such as the Ohio Students Association and others rallied and pressured the county prosecutor to support the appointment of a special prosecutor. Against a backdrop of simmering national discussions about police use of force following the Eric Garner and Michael Brown shootings, the Ohio attorney general assigned a special prosecutor with experience in police-involved shootings to the case. Several states have proposed measures about appointing special prosecutors or providing independent investigation when there are officer-involved deaths, including California, Indiana, New York, Missouri, Maryland, Colorado, New Jersey, and New Mexico. New York and Indiana are the only states to propose establishing an office at the state level.

Best Practices:

States should establish a permanent and independent “Office of Police Investigations”, authorized to investigate and prosecute all police killings of civilians, use-of-force cases, sexual assault by law enforcement officers and any other cases of police misconduct against civilians, at its discretion. Unlike civilian oversight bodies or Inspectors General Officers (discussed below) these offices would have the power to prosecute officers accused of misconduct in criminal court.

  • The Office should be equipped with sufficient resources, including investigators independent of local police departments.
  • Absent the creation of a permanent office, independent, special prosecutors should be assigned in all cases where criminal misconduct against civilians is alleged against police and in all police encounters or custody that result in the death of a civilian.
  • In cases that involve state police departments, Attorney Generals should be required to appoint a special, independent prosecutor.