Mayor de Blasio, left, and Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson (photo: @BilldeBlasio)
Amidst calls for special prosecutors, public hearings, and the attorney general to take over, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has stridently defended the prerogative of his office to call a grand jury in the police killing of Akai Gurley.
It's his "duty" as Brooklyn's "duly elected district attorney" to pursue cases of police brutality, Thompson says. And citing the Ferguson and Staten Island decisions, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a key Thompson ally, notes that when it comes to grand juries, "prosecutors often get their wish."
Both figures may be well-intentioned proponents of police accountability, but their statements nonetheless illustrate the core problem with the grand jury process in such cases. The outcomes often boil down to politics, not law.
A closer look at the potential jury pools in Staten Island and Brooklyn illustrates the point.
Though it's becoming more diverse, Staten Island's population remains largely white, with blacks numbering about 12%. Nearly 30% of the borough's 265,000 registered voters are Republicans. About 45% of the island's potential voters are registered Democrats, but those ranks are not dominated by progressives.
The last Democrat to carry Staten Island in the mayor's race was Ed Koch (in 1985), a conservative on law-and-order issues. And while Joe Lhota lost by a landslide in the mayor's race last fall, he did carry the island, beating de Blasio 53-44%.
Staten Island, of course, is also home to many current and retired NYPD officers. There are 3,000 active duty cops living there, and together with retirees and jury-eligible family members, they constitute a vocal bloc.
As a result, "it would be difficult to empanel a grand jury in Staten Island that is not sympathetic to cops," observes veteran city reporter Wayne Barrett. "But it certainly doesn't seem like the D.A. wanted to go to trial."
In addition, D.A. Dan Donovan called a special grand jury, which makes more demands on jurors' time. Not many working people can commit to a schedule requiring a few daytime visits per week over the course of several months.
In general, this increases the likelihood that housewives and retirees are over-represented on the final panel. We don't know the occupational status of Garner jurors, but 15 of the 23 jurors were white—and based on the composite sketch above, they were likely to be sympathetic to the police.
Donovan, a Republican, is up for reelection in 2015, and he's also been mentioned as a possible contender for Michael Grimm's congressional seat, should the latter be forced to resign due to his legal troubles. In terms of his own career, Donovan had more to lose than gain by pursuing an indictment in the Garner case.
Demographically and otherwise, there's very little similarity between New York City's smallest borough and its most populous. For starters, Brooklyn is more diverse, checking in at 36% white, 32% black, 20% Latino and 10% Asian.
There are also nearly 930,000 registered Democrats in Brooklyn, as opposed to only 115,000 Republicans. While Bill Thompson (no relation to DA Ken) carried Brooklyn in the 2009 mayoral campaign (52-45%), last year de Blasio, running as a progressive with a police reform agenda, easily beat Thompson in the primary (46-27%) before crushing Lhota, the 'get tough' law and order candidate, in the general election (78-20%).
After successfully toppling long-time incumbent Joe Hynes last year, Ken Thompson, unlike Donovan, is not facing reelection, nor is he yet a potential candidate for another office. Meanwhile, it's more likely that amidst the outrage over the Garner decision, an indictment (and possibly a conviction) in the Gurley case will help more than hurt him politically.
Such glaring differences between two neighboring jurisdictions create different scales of justice. While Thompson may be able to show that the grand jury process "works" in Brooklyn, it's just as likely to remain biased in favor of police in Staten Island.
In the name of equality under the law, and in the same city, the fairest solution is thus to implement one identical process in all major cases involving police misconduct.
Theodore Hamm (@HammerDaily) is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.