California became the first state in the nation to ban the use of grand juries in police-involved killings and excessive force last week. Per Senate Bill 227, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed on Thursday, prosecutors—who are elected by the public—will decide whether or not to press criminal charges against local, county and state peace officers who commit violence against civilians. Sherriffs, marshalls, investigators and some port police are among peace officers.
The new law addresses the fact that grand juries tend to be secretive, aren’t subject to oversight and rarely indict officers. California prosecutors seldom use grand juries for police violence cases, but for some, removing the possibility is a necessary step to ending police brutality.
For others, it hardly addresses the issue. We spoke with three Californians who work on criminal justice in the Golden State, including Alex Sanchez, whose case was the subject of a secret grand jury before it was dropped for dubious “errors.”
In many states, prosecutors have the option to convene a grand jury to determine if a police officer should be charged with a crime after killing a civilian. During a grand jury, citizens review evidence in a case, but there is no judge or defense attorney, no cross-examinations or objections—which critics say add up to little oversight, transparency or explanation of the law. In addition, the proceedings are typically kept secret. It’s a system that has led to decisions not to indict Darren Wilson (Michael Brown’s killer), Daniel Pantaleo (who choked Eric Garner to death) and countless other officers, leading to widespread mistrust of the process.