For one year, Cuomo appoints Schneiderman to serve as special prosecutor in police cases [Updated]


Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) announced on Tuesday that he was appointing for a term of one year State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) to serve as a special prosecutor for criminal cases involving police officers, including, for example, cases of officer-involved homicides.

Governor Cuomo had gathered at a blue-skirted table with the leaders of the state legislature, the "three men in a room" as they are collectively known, to announce the framework for a conclusion of this year's legislative term.

Many of Governor Cuomo's proposals have been rejected this year due to the turmoil caused by on-going corruption investigations of state officials, including the arrests and subsequent indictments on federal corruption charges of the recent, past leaders of each of the legislative chambers.  The special prosecutor proposal was amongst Governor Cuomo's proposals, for which the state legislature was unable to pass conforming legislation.  Consequently, Governor Cuomo announced that he was making the appointment of State Attorney General Schneiderman by executive order.

"We were not successful in coming up with a special prosecutor law.  Therefore, I will do what I said I was going to do :  I will appoint the attorney general as a special prosecutor for a period of one year and do that by executive order," Governor Cuomo said, in part.

During the question-and-answer portion of the Tuesday's press conference, Governor Cuomo added, in part, that "We had three very different proposals that we were trying to reconcile.  We were not successful in reconciling them by today.  We will take it up again next year, and, hopefully, we get there next year."

As the subject of police officer-invovled killings went from becoming a New York City issue to a national issue, State Attorney General Schneiderman held a press conference last December, requesting that Governor Cuomo temporarily make the special prosecutor appointment during the time that Governor Cuomo would be working with the state legislature to formalize a legislative framework for a special prosecutor.  However, Governor Cuomo took his own approach, and when it didn't work, he waited until negations ended without success to appoint State Attorney General Schneiderman as a special prosecutor.

As mentioned in an editorial published by Progress Queens, there are many issues with selecting State Attorney General Schneiderman to serve as a special prosecutor, including that the state attorney general's office has many conflicts of interests with the various police departments across the state, something that the special prosecutor law was meant to address, not perpetuate.  An example of State Attorney General Schneiderman taking official action to curry political favor with police unions was when he, in 2014, funded an initiative to buy bullet-proof vests for police departments.  

For his part, the press office for State Attorney General Schneiderman did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for an interview for this article.  However, State Attorney General Schneiderman did issue a statement on Tuesday, lamenting Governor Cuomo's delay in making the appointment, saying, “In December, I requested that the Governor sign an Executive Order to empower my office to investigate deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police.  This order was to remain in effect only until the Governor and the Legislature enacted statutory reforms to address this critical issue in a permanent and considered fashion,” adding that, “I am disappointed that, six months later, we did not see such statutory action -- part of a broader failure to achieve meaningful reform on a range of issues in this legislative session.  The Governor announced today that, as he was unable to enact statutory reform, he is issuing such an executive order.  My office will handle these cases with the highest level of care and independence, while we continue to work with lawmakers, District Attorneys, advocates and other experts in criminal justice reform on a long-term legislative solution to this critical matter of law and policy.  All of us who care about the great State of New York must redouble our efforts to strengthen the ties between communities and the police officers and prosecutors who devote themselves so honorably to public protection.”

State Attorney General Schneiderman was thought to be considering a run for governor in 2018, and any campaign he mounts will be on a platform of law and order, given his government experience as a legislator and prosecutor.  How he will reconcile challenging the powerful police unions and still brandish that law and order brand is not known and may complicate his stated motivations to hold police officers accountable for killing unarmed civilians during police encounters.

As shown in a report published by The New York Times, the most influential police union in State Attorney General Schneiderman's home city of New York, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, or PBA, wields considerable influence with city and state officials.

"Fortified with millions of dollars in annual dues collections, the P.B.A. is one of the most powerful unions in the city.  As an active lobbyist in Albany and as a contributor to political campaigns, the P.B.A. has enormous influence over the department and is typically brought in for consultations before important management decisions are made," wrote the reporter Clifford Krauss in his report for The New York Times

According to an interim report published by the Mollen Commission and reported about at the time by the reporter Selwyn Raab for The New York Times, it was noted that police unions acted to thwart investigations of police misconduct.  

Therefore, any actions that State Attorney General Schneiderman takes to hold wayward police officers accountable, especially those on the NYPD's force, may risk triggering political backlash from the police officers' unions, including from the PBA.  And should Governor Cuomo survive the ethics scandals of his administration and run for reëlection in 2018, his appointment of State Attorney General Schneiderman to serve as a special prosecutor may be being conceived with some intention to politically damage State Attorney General Schneiderman with powerful police unions.*

Governor Cuomo's appointment was made as debate still ensues over matters of police accountability and reform, an area where Black religious leaders say Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has failed.  As reported last December by The New York Daily News, the on-duty officers of the New York Police Department, or NYPD, were responsible for 179 civilian deaths in police encounters over a span of 15 years.

Last December, Milton Mollen, the honorable retired judge who served as chair of the Mollen Commission, told Progress Queens that he did not see a systemic problem showing a lack of police accountability at the NYPD, given his expertise on the subject of investigating the police force.

“The matters that are now in the public eye are not police corruption,” Judge Mollen told Progress Queens in an exclusive interview.  Speaking of his experience in investigating police corruption, Judge Mollen said, “We were looking into criminal intent or criminal actions,” adding, “We were looking at wrong-doing.”  Judge Mollen said that he did not see these elements in the current discussion about the need for police reform.

As reported by Progress Queens, some police reform activists claim that a system that fails to hold police accountable is, by design, a form of corruption that prevents the administration of justice, especially in cases of excessive force, brutality, and homicide committed by police.

Last Thursday, music mogul and civil activist Russell Simmons had publicly complained during a radio interview about each of Mayor de Blasio's failures to reform the NYPD and Governor Cuomo's failure to appoint a special prosecutor.  After excerpts of Mr. Simmons' controversial radio interview went viral, Governor Cuomo communicated to Mr. Simmons that he would make good on his promise to appoint a special prosecutor.

Updated :  This article was updated to detail the intersection of possible political backlash from police unions to any accountability that State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may attempt to institute in officer-involved cases.*