The State of California has just enacted legislation to ban the use of grand juries in offense or misconduct cases that involve a shooting or use of excessive force by a peace officer that led to the death of a person detained or arrested by the officer. Governor Brown has signed this legislation into law. I applaud this action. Here’s why.
A Secretive Process Is Not the Answer
After a lifetime in law enforcement, I understand and fully acknowledge that grand juries serve an important role in our judicial system and are a desperately needed tool in the fight against crime. However, because of the personal beliefs about policing deeply held by so many in this country, the secret and unopposed grand jury system in police use of force cases is fundamentally flawed.
Legislation Allows Transparency
Clearly, the public accountability and transparency California’s legislation brings is important, and absolutely appropriate for today. Even more significantly, however, California’s decision brings legal fairness, transparency and consistency through the adversarial process for the victims killed, their families as well as the officers involved in these life and death encounters.
Since officers have to make split-second decisions that can determine life or death, they must be able to rely on a fair and objective legal interpretation of their actions, not one swayed by emotion or ambition. We have seen that either indicting or declining an indictment of an officer can have disastrous effects on both the officer and the community.
Just as with any defendant, the case should be conducted as thoroughly and accurately as possible. In our current system, the outcome of a grand jury can be profoundly impacted by a prosecutor who pushes hard for an indictment or who holds back. Either action fundamentally robs all parties, including the community of the truth. The open adversarial process of a preliminary hearing helps resolve this issue.
Right to a Fair Hearing
Now, the parties to such actions in California will have their day in court. Evidence can be presented, testimony can be heard, defense attorneys can present evidence and then judges must do what we entrust them to do every day: make a decision based upon the law, the credibility of the evidence presented that demonstrates probable cause that the accused officer should stand trial.
Not everyone will be happy with California’s decision. But I stand with many who view it as a step in the right direction to protect the rights of victims of police misconduct as well as the rights of the vast majority of officers who make hard decisions every day, based upon the law, their training and their good judgment. Who loses? Officers acting with criminal malice. Unscrupulously ambitious prosecutors. And lying victims.
I applaud California’s actions. I wonder if our other 49 states are ready to move in this direction. What do you think?