Police shootings raise a legal question: Should local prosecutors prosecute local cops?

Wisconsin law tries a different approach

There are hard, deep-seeded questions in the public’s outcry following two police killings – that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Race, poverty, police training, and the use of deadly force are only a few of them.

There’s a legal question, too, only a small slice of the issue, but one that could be worked on in concrete ways. It stems from this: In both Ferguson and New York City, local prosecutors took the cases before local grand juries, and in both instances the jurors declined to indict the police officers involved in the killings.

So the legal question is this: Should a criminal justice system investigate itself? Is there a conflict of interest when prosecutors, who work with cops every day putting away criminals, turn around and prosecute accused police officers?

Gina Barton, an award-winning investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, says it’s a question people have been asking in Wisconsin for years.

“If somebody in your own police department does something wrong, the investigators know this guy, they’ve worked with this guy, maybe he saved their life at some point or backed them up on something. And so, even if there’s not an actual conflict of interest, there’s definitely a perceived conflict of interest,” she says.

In this week’s DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook talks to Barton about the country’s first law to address the problem. Enacted in Wisconsin earlier this year, the law came up after two earlier police-involved deaths outraged the public, those of Michael Bell in 2004, and then Derek Williams in 2012.

Barton tells these two young mens’ stories, and then recounts a third, the police killing of Dontre Hamilton earlier this year. Just days after the new law passed, a Milwaukee police officer shot Hamilton 14 times in a public park, providing a test case by which Wisconsin’s law is being judged.

[Also by Andrea Seabrook: Inside the investigation into military sex offenders]

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