12/09/2014 06:00 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Following the Garner Case, We Need to Restore Confidence in Our Justice System Now


For the last week, demonstrators across the country have used Eric Garner's last words as a rallying cry for reform. Night after night, in city after city, demonstrators took to the streets chanting "I can't breathe" and "it stops here."

As powerful as those words are, the words most troubling for those of us in law enforcement and those of us who make public policy were one simple statement from a grieving widow.

After learning a grand jury declined to indict anyone involved in her husband's death, Esaw Garner was quoted as saying: "Oh my God, are you serious?"

Her words reflected more than just her own deeply personal pain. They reflect the sense of many New Yorkers and many Americans that our justice system does not provide equal justice to everyone -- specifically to people of color killed during encounters with law enforcement.

While some Republican presidential wannabes are exploiting this tragedy to push their radical anti-tax agendas or blaming the victim for being too overweight to survive the encounter, here in New York we are taking this very serious. We know the erosion of trust and confidence must be addressed, and must be addressed now.

Many have suggested there is an inherent conflict when local district attorneys who work with police departments every day are asked to investigate members of those departments.

I have the highest possible regard for the district attorneys in the State of New York. But as prosecutors, it is time to acknowledge that the public has lost confidence in this part of our criminal justice system.

Some have already proposed legislation that would address this apparent conflict. I look forward to working with everyone here to pass meaningful reforms that move us closer to the basic promise of equal justice under the law for everyone.

But the fact is, we cannot afford to wait until the legislature returns to Albany, conducts its debates and passes a bill.

The crisis of confidence in our communities is real. It is powerful. It is happening now. And it carries an imminent risk of danger.

When the trust between the police and the communities they serve breaks down, everyone is at risk. New Yorkers must be able to trust the men and women of the NYPD. They must come forward to report crimes. And they must come forward as witnesses.

We cannot wait months for the legislature to act. We can, and must, act now.

That is why I have written to Governor Cuomo calling on him to act under the authority granted him under existing law to issue an interim executive order directing me to investigate the circumstances surrounding the use of force by law enforcement officers that result in the death of unarmed civilians.

Existing state law authorizes the governor to supersede any local district attorney on any criminal matter by appointing the attorney general to investigate and prosecute the case. This broad grant of authority is based in Article IV, Section 3 of the state constitution and has been invoked many times in the past.

In addition, executive law section 63 (3) authorizes the governor to direct the attorney general to "investigate the alleged commission of any indictable offense or offenses," and to prosecute the person or persons believed to have committed any such offenses.

Consistent with this legal authority, the governor should immediately issue a temporary standing order authorizing my office to investigate the circumstances surrounding cases in which unarmed civilians are killed as a result of the actions of a police officer who is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties.

In order to avoid the possibility of compromising any local, state or federal investigations already in progress, the order I am proposing should apply only to incidents occurring on or after the date the order is signed.

And the order should explicitly state that it expires when the legislature acts to permanently address this issue in such manner as it deems appropriate.

It is a simple, immediate and effective solution. It is something we can do today to once again show the leadership of New York state on an issue of national importance.