California has become the first state in the nation to ban grand jury hearings for police-involved shootings and excessive force* cases. Per Senate Bill 227, prosecutors, who are elected in California, would be responsible for deciding to press criminal charges against so-called peace officers, a designation that, along with police officers, include sherriffs, marshals, investigators and some port police.
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.
“One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why SB227 makes sense,” state senator and bill author Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement. “The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”
Former judge and San Jose police auditor LaDoris Hazzard Cordell added: “Communities want a criminal justice system that is transparent and which holds all of the players—law enforcement, prosecutors and judges— accountable when there are civilian deaths resulting from the conduct of officers. Criminal grand juries do neither.”
The bill was supported by several groups, including the California State Conference of the NAACP, the Friends Committee of Legislation of California and the California Public Defenders Association. It was opposed by the California District Attorneys Association, which argued that prosecutors should retain grand juries in their toolbox, even if they are seldom used. The law will go into effect in January 2016.
*Post has been updated since publication to include excessive force, and to detail which law enforcement professionals are considered peace officers.