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NY AG Calls Dibs on Future Brutality Cases

MANHATTAN (CN) - New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman won't reopen the case of Eric Garner's fatal chokehold, or look into the stairway shots that ended Akin Gurley's life. But the next time police kill an unarmed black man, Schneiderman wants that case on his desk.

Such authorization would apply only to future police killings of unarmed civilians, but not any of the infamous New York City ones that have sparked massive, daily protests for nearly a week.

Thousands of people have snarled New York City streets, highways, bridges, shops and landmarks every day since a Staten Island grand jury's refusal on Dec. 3 to indict the cop who placed a fatal chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed black man.

Millions around the world have seen a bystander's video of Garner repeating his final words, "I can't breathe," 11 times before he died, in what the city's medical examiner ruled a homicide by chokehold and compression to the chest.

Although the NYPD has banned chokeholds for more than a decade, officer Daniel Pantaleo dodged charges last week for using the maneuver. Outraged New Yorkers reacted by spilling onto the streets by the thousands in protests that have not abated.

Schneiderman announced Monday that he sent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo a letter seeking permission to probe all future police killings of unarmed civilians and, "if necessary," criminally prosecute the officers involved.

"Nothing could be more critical for both the public and the police officers who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe than acting immediately to restore trust and confidence in the independence of reviews in any case involving an unarmed civilian killed by a law enforcement officer," Schneiderman said in a statement. "While several worthy legislative reforms have been proposed, the Governor has the power to act today to solve this problem. I strongly encourage him to take action now."

St. Louis University law professor emeritus Roger Goldman, an expert on licensing related to police misconduct, said in a phone interview that a state sovereign has the lawful authority to empanel multiple grand juries because the principle of double-jeopardy applies only once a jury has been sworn in after an indictment.

Schneiderman would not empanel another grand jury for Pantaleo for "practical" reasons, however, because a federal investigation is still pending, the attorney general's spokesman Matt Mittenthal said in a phone interview.

Nor would Schneiderman's office second-guess the Brooklyn grand jury investigating the police shooting that killed the unarmed Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a housing development, Mittenthal said.

Schneiderman's two-page letter to Cuomo notes that state legislators have long called for special prosecutors to handle police-brutality cases, rather than trust county prosecutors who work closely with the police they are supposed to probe.

"One such bill, first introduced by Assemblyman Keith Wright in 1999 and most recently sponsored in the Senate by Senator Gustavo Rivera, would vest power in my office to investigate and prosecute any crime allegedly committed by a police officer," the letter states. "A similar measure, applicable only to offenses allegedly committed by New York City police officers, was recently introduced by Senator Kevin Parker. A third bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Nick Perry, would amend County Law section 701 to allow a judge to appoint another District Attorney or the Attorney General to act as a 'special district attorney' in criminal matters where the judge finds that the county prosecutor is 'disqualified."

While Schneiderman framed his proposal around "public confidence," rather actual prosecutorial conflict-of-interest, several of the public officials quoted in Schneiderman's statement said that district-attorney bias in police-brutality cases is real.

"Recent national events have raised serious questions about the ability of local prosecutors to bring charges against police officers," New York City public advocate Letitia James said in a statement. "It is unrealistic to expect district attorneys who regularly rely on local police to make cases to be absolutely impartial when investigating police misconduct."

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Manhattan Borough President Gale Adams, and more than a dozen other city, state, and federal legislators supported the measure in separate statements.

Also applauding Schneiderman's announcement, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) noted that the attorney general's proposal would build upon their recent legal victory against racially biased policing.

"The proposed investigation is an important complement to the Joint Remedial Process ordered by a federal court in CCR's successful class action lawsuit, Floyd v. City of New York, to reform the NYPD's racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing," executive director Vince Warren said in a statement.

Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hours after Schneiderman's announcement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder amended law enforcement profiling guidance to prohibit discrimination based on "national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, and sexual orientation."

The changes apply "a uniform standard to all law enforcement, national security, and intelligence activities conducted by the department's law enforcement components," Holder said.

The prior guidance, from 2003, applied only to race and ethnicity in federal investigations.

"The new guidance also applies to state and local law enforcement law officers who participate in federal law enforcement task forces," the Department of Justice said in a statement.

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