A national group of prosecutors has reached agreement on best practices for handling police use of force cases. The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA), an organization of both elected and appointed prosecutors, issued a detailed set of guidelines that it calls the “21st Century Principles of Prosecution.”
The guidelines include “promising practices for investigating use of force cases, ensuring the integrity of use of force prosecutions, and promoting equal justice and safer communities.”
The group drafted its report after a committee of prosecutors held meetings in Kansas City, Philadelphia, Portland, Or., and Austin, Tx., speaking to religious, community and law enforcement leaders. APA said its members “heard anger, frustration and disillusionment about the current state of the criminal justice process.”
Both police and prosecutors have faced extensive public criticism for the way several controversial police shootings have been handled in recent years.
These included the killings of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in St. Louis and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014. Prosecutors did not file criminal charges against the police officers involved in either case, prompting widespread protests.
The prosecutors concluded from their meetings around the nation that there is “an erosion of public faith in the criminal justice system, including the investigations and prosecutions of use of force cases. The public may be increasingly distrustful of the independence of the prosecutor’s office in holding all offenders accountable, and in ensuring fair and equal justice for all, regardless of position or power.”
The prosecutors’ statement comes soon after the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Fraternal Order of Police and other major law enforcement groups issued their own “consensus” statement on use of force incidents in January.
Like the document issued by the police groups, the new prosecutors’ agreement is not binding on the more than 3,000 independently elected prosecutors around the nation.
Still, it is likely to get a close look as prosecutors seek to increase public support for the way they handle accusations against officers. Because prosecutors work so closely with the police in day-to-day criminal cases, they often are accused of giving officers too much leeway to abuse civilians.
APA said it based its new document on four main points: respect for human dignity, independent investigation and prosecution decision making, responsible transparency, and procedural fairness and justice.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a member of APA’s President’s Advisory Council and himself a former police chief, said in issuing the new report that “distrust in law enforcement is an impediment to effective policing and public safety. As prosecutors we share a responsibility for keeping our communities safe, therefore we share a responsibility to cure the distrust.”
He continued, “By ensuring these investigations are transparent, objective and beyond reproach, we can restore the community’s trust that anyone who violates the law will be held accountable-even those who wear a uniform.”
The APA document includes suggested guidance on how prosecutors should act at each stage of a use-of-force case, and even before an incident arises.
For example, it recommends that prosecutors should initiate the development of memorandums of understanding with law enforcement agencies and other criminal justice agencies and government offices “to define the general roles and responsibilities of all applicable parties at each and every stage of the case.”
At the conclusion of a case, APA says, “prosecutors should endeavor to communicate all appropriate information to the public, but prosecutors cannot make statements or release evidence likely to prejudice the outcome of the investigation or subsequent trial.”
If no charges are filed, APA says, “prosecutors may wish to explain that a decision not to proceed with criminal charges is not an indictment of the injured party or their conduct or an approval of the conduct of the officer or officer involved, and that such a decision does not preclude civil or federal criminal remedies.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.