There's no "i" in "team," as the saying goes, but there is in "indictment." Each week at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, prosecutors and police officers work hand in hand as part of the prosecution team to enforce the law and see that justice is done. But when police officers face charges before a grand jury, Texas essentially asks state attorneys to turn on their fellow teammates. This inevitably leads to uncomfortable situations and the perception, if not reality, of preferential treatment.
As the Legislature looks to rewrite some of the laws about grand juries, elected officials should require that the state rely upon special prosecutors whenever police officers face a potential indictment.
Originally established as a civilian barrier between government prosecutors and the accused, grand juries today often are derided as a marionette gallery for a prosecutor puppeteer. The accused have no defense team, and prosecutors have leeway to present evidence as they see fit. However, grand juries recently have fallen under the eye of public scrutiny after a pattern of unarmed Houstonians fatally shot by police officers resulted in no charges.
Police officers have a tough job and deserve public praise for doing it well. But whether heroic cops or career criminals, justice is supposed to be blind. Everyone should be distressed if grand juries raise the bar for a select few - even if they're Houston's finest.
These hypothetical worries of a soft hand for police officers were turned concrete after Chronicle columnistLisa Falkenberg revealed that police officers served on grand juries. Accused police officers should face a jury of their peers, not their co-workers, and potential conflicts of interest undermine the ideal of an equitable justice system.
Several political leaders already have called for changes to our grand juries. Last month, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced her support for ending the current commissioner system, which allows grand jury members to be appointed rather than randomly selected. Texas is the only state that still relies on this so-called "pick-a-pal" system, and state Sen. John Whitmire has filed Senate Bill 135 to fix this outdated methodology. This change will better ensure that people before grand juries face a true cross-section of society, rather than a pool of people that judges happen to know.
A similar shakeup needs to happen on the other side of the courtroom, as well. State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, has filed a bill to do just that. Reynolds' bill, HB 1840, would require that the state appoint a special prosecutor to investigate officer-involved injuries or death.
"Texas needs an independent, impartial, specially appointed prosecutor to handle these most sensitive incidents," Reynolds said in a press release announcing the bill. "Fostering trust in the criminal justice system is a worthy reason to change procedure."
This sense of trust helps police officers and citizens alike. So when it comes to independent prosecutors, everyone should be on the same team.