This op-ed appeared in the New York Daily News on May 4, 2015.
As black lives across the country continue to be unjustly taken at the hands of police at a sickening rate, here’s a question for Gov. Cuomo and other elected leaders across the country: How many must die before action is taken towards real reform?
The governor has the opportunity to impact history by enacting a simple but critical reform here in New York, one that the Brooklyn NAACP has advocated for since the 1940s.
The names George Waddell and Herman Newton may not be ones you recognize, but their stories are all too familiar. Both men — black, unarmed and guilty of no crime — were unjustly gunned down at the hands of New York City police officers in 1949.
Neither officer was arrested or suspended; grand juries in both cases refused to indict. These were just two instances of several fatal police shootings and brutal beatings that year in which a district attorney failed to win criminal indictments against officers.
At the time, Gov. Thomas Dewey — a Republican widely considered to be progressive — was urged to appoint an independent prosecutor who would pursue “an immediate and fair inquiry” into these cases. Several social-justice groups would join in support of the call, including local churches, Jewish social service organizations, editorial boards, elected officials and ultimately the national NAACP.
Now — more than half a century later — names like Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Akai Gurley and countless other black New Yorkers take their places alongside Waddell and Newton in a chapter of history that should never have been written, and must not continue.
These unjust killings continue decade after decade because there is a systemic failure by our justice system — and more specifically, local district attorneys — to hold police accountable. It’s not simply a perception problem, but one based on the fact that officers responsible for unjustly killing black people routinely escape consequences for their actions.
The charges filed by the state’s attorney Friday against six Baltimore officers in the death of Freddie Gray are the welcome exception, most certainly not the rule.
Not in New York, at least. A Daily News investigation last year found that of the at least 179 people killed by the NYPD over the previous 15 years, just three of the deaths led to an indictment. Only one resulted in a conviction, with a sentence of no jail time. That only covers New York City, not the dozens of other killings across our state.
The justice system failures are of little surprise: Experts throughout the country recognize that local district attorneys are entirely dependent on police departments for success. They collaborate on a daily basis, creating an unavoidable and direct conflict of interest.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recently endorsed the use of prosecutors who are external and independent of district attorneys for these cases. It’s a sensible fix, long overdue. Whether or not it would bring justice, it would at least begin to reassure citizens that the justice system is looking at cases impartially.
New York ought to be leading, not lagging, on this. Yet for several months, civil rights advocates have been urging Cuomo to use his executive power to authorize the appointment of a special prosecutor.
The question now is, on which side of history does Cuomo want to be?
The New York State Senate recently failed to advance legislation to accomplish this needed reform due to partisan opposition. The protection of black lives must not wait for the political stars to align, because they may never do so. Cuomo has the power to act now, and he should not delay action any longer.
The time has come for Cuomo to do what Dewey would not, and stand up for justice and equal protection under the law for all New Yorkers.
Williams is President of the Brooklyn NAACP and Robinson is executive director of Color of Change.