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Bill shaking up grand jury process proposed in Congress

Grand Jury Reform Act would require special prosecutor for police killings

Proposed legislation aimed at changing the grand jury process for indicting police officers accused of using fatal, excessive force has been put forward by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Grand Jury Reform Act, introduced on Thursday by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., would require that special prosecutors conduct the probable cause hearings in such cases. These hearings would take place before a judge and be open to the public.

The legislation comes in response to two recent high-profile grand jury decisions that have focused a spotlight on how the criminal justice system treats police officers accused of abuse. Over the past month, grand juries in both St. Louis County, Missouri, and New York City have decided not to indict white police officers that killed unarmed black men. In both cases, the prosecutor in charge of seeking an indictment has been accused of unduly favoring the police.

Johnson cited those two cases as the impetus for proposing his bill during a Friday conference call with the activist group Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC).

After those two grand jury decisions, "I think many people understand that the nation's grand jury system is fundamentally broken," said Johnson.

Some of the activist groups protesting those grand jury decisions have demanded that special prosecutors handle cases of alleged police misconduct because county prosecutors tend to have close relationships with local law enforcement. 

“The protesters demand an end to what is perceived as unequal justice, and that those who are responsible for the use of excessive force be brought to justice,” said Johnson in a statement. “They do not trust a secret grand jury system that is so clearly broken. My bill will help restore that trust.  No longer will communities have to rely on the secret and biased grand jury process.”

Johnson unveiled his bill on the same day that black congressional staffers staged a walkout in protest of recent police killings of unarmed African-Americans.

Another recent killing — that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio — has not yet resulted in a grand jury hearing. Rice's family has urged the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office to charge the officer responsible for killing Rice before the case goes before a grand jury. Such a move would increase the likelihood of an indictment, but it is unlikely that the prosecutor will accede to the Rice family's request. The stated policy of the county prosecutor's office in cases of alleged police misconduct is to allow the grand jury to determine what charges, if any, should be brought against the accused.

In addition to altering the grand jury system, Johnson has proposed legislation that would end the controversial "1033" program that allows local law enforcement to receive arms from the United States military.

He has also suggested that it should be a federal crime for police officers to commit first degree murder, second degree murder, or manslaughter. Putting these crimes within federal jurisdiction would give the Justice Department more leeway to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing.

Johnson's proposals might not have much hope in the next session of Congress, when Republicans will control both the House and the Senate. During the PCCC call, Johnson conceded that Democrats "have not been as weak legislatively as we are now in about 100 years, maybe 90 years or so." Nonetheless, he promised to keep lobbying for his proposed reforms.

"I'm going to educate my colleagues on these issues and hold briefings and hearings when I can," he said. "I'm going to continue to fight for these bills."

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