ATLANTA -- A Macon lawmaker is hoping for a hearing on a bill that would put out-of-town district attorneys in charge of investigating allegations of severe police brutality.
State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said she wants to make sure that “every person that’s involved in the judicial system is not showing bias just because (the accused) ... happens to be a law enforcement officer or someone they came up through the ranks with or someone they’re going to have to work with later on.”
Randall said she wants Georgians to have trust in their judicial system in cases of allegations against officers.
“Bringing in a neutral party, I think, is the best way to do that,” she said.
In cases of death or severe injury at the hands of law enforcement, the state attorney general would appoint a special prosecutor under Randall’s House Bill 37. That prosecutor would decide whether to bring an indictment.
Right now, in police brutality accusations, district attorneys examine the evidence and decide whether it’s appropriate to file charges, not file charges or present the case to a grand jury to make the decision.
Randall filed the bill in response to a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last year. But that’s not her only motivation.
“There are some cases that are in question here in Georgia that we certainly need to look at and look at more carefully,” she said.
One example would be David Hooks, who was fatally shot last year by a Laurens County deputy. In that case, the DA called in the GBI for an investigation and promised to turn over the files to the state Attorney General’s Office after his own review.
Randall’s bill has few friends.
“We’ve got mechanisms for dealing with conflict,” said Charles Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
Especially in sparsely populated rural districts, it’s possible a DA knows and has worked with an officer under investigation, Spahos said.
“We’re also of the opinion that simply knowing a police officer doesn’t keep me from being able to perform my duties as a prosecutor,” he said.
Spahos also questioned eliminating the grand jury for a single class of accused people. “We’re going to say that every other murder case in the state of Georgia goes to the grand jury, but not a police officer in the lawful discharge of their duties?”
The Macon Judicial Circuit’s own DA, David Cooke, said two things are “critical” when dealing with an officer-involved shooting: objectivity and accountability.
To ensure objectivity in his circuit, he has established a “bright-line rule” to send all cases of officer-involved shootings to the GBI for investigation. When Cooke took office in 2013, the first thing he did was call the GBI to investigate the 10-day-old shooting of Sammie Davis Jr. by a police officer at the Kroger grocery store on Macon’s Pio Nono Avenue. The GBI found the shooting justified, and Cooke decided not to charge the officer.
To ensure “accountability,” the voters should take care of that, he said.
“When it comes to decisions regarding prosecution, the buck should continue to stop with the district attorney who directly answers to the voters in the jurisdiction where the shooting occurred,” Cooke said.
He said he appreciates Randall’s work but that “voters should have the right to hold their local prosecutors accountable.”
Randall does have a supporter in Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically African-American service fraternity.
After Ferguson, “we came together and decided, ‘OK, something like this could easily happen here in Georgia,’” said Aaron Ruffin, president of the fraternity’s Gwinnett County chapter.
Randall said House Bill 37 is a first step in starting “a conversation that needs to be had,” but it’s not a silver bullet.
“Sweeping changes, especially in the judicial system, usually takes a while, especially when you have strong organizations that may oppose it,” she said.
Randall is seeking a subcommittee hearing in the coming weeks.