When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired his police superintendent this week, he acknowledged the problem that’s been dogging law enforcement since the days of the first beat cops: How do we ensure that the police are being policed? NPR asks that fundamental question. Police departments have internal affairs investigators, and some police also answer to civilian oversight boards. Since Ferguson, there’s a growing sense that the real conflict of interest is at the level of the local prosecutors. For prosecutors and grand juries, the decision to charge a cop is different from deciding whether to charge a civilian, because cops are allowed to shoot people, if circumstances warrant. There also are subtler differences, says Jonathan Witmer-Rich, an associate professor at Cleveland State University’s law school. “Prosecutors do not seem to approach police shooting cases the way that they approach ordinary shooting cases,” he says.
Witmer-Rich has been watching the controversial handling of the case of an officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year. He says prosecutors are in a tough spot. “It’s very delicate for them politically,” he says. “They have to work with the police, day in, day out. They’re facing pressures about alienating people they work with regularly. And that makes it very hard for them politically.” One idea for solving this is to bring in outsiders. This idea gained traction after the death of Eric Garner in New York City last year, for which no officer was charged. This summer Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the creation of a new unit of special prosecutors inside the attorney general’s office. When in doubt, says Alvin Bragg, who heads the unit, district attorneys are supposed to call his crew to the scene of police shootings.