The city’s NYPD watchdog wants to review the testimony and evidence from a grand jury investigation into the death of Eric Garner in police custody so it can complete its own probe of alleged civil rights abuses.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board filed a petition in Staten Island Supreme Court last week asking a judge to grant them access to the testimony of police officers and witnesses that the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office presented to the Garner grand jury.
The CCRB had begun its own probe of Garner’s July 17 death after receiving multiple complaints of police abuse, but stopped questioning witnesses and compiling evidence when former Staten Island DA Daniel Donovan and federal prosecutors asked the agency to hold off while they completed their own investigations.
In December, Donovan’s office finished its grand jury proceeding, which ended with no criminal charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who was accused of using a chokehold to cause Garner’s death. Donovan has refused to make the transcripts from the grand jury public despite demands from civil rights groups and Public Advocate Letitia James.
Brooklyn federal prosecutors have not wrapped up their probe and have not been able to provide an expected completion date to the CCRB, the petition says.
The CCRB decided that the best way to move forward with its own investigation without interfering with the feds’ probe was to compel Donovan’s office to hand over the testimony of the 50 witnesses and the 60 exhibits it presented to the grand jury last fall.
“We felt this was the least-intrusive method,” CCRB chairman Richard Emery told DNAinfo New York.
Emery said his agency would respect the secrecy of the grand jury and would follow the court’s guidance on reviewing the evidence.
“We are perfectly happy to make sure that this remains private,” Emery said. “We’ll even go over to the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office and review it there.”
Under the city charter, the CCRB has a mandate to investigate allegations of police misconduct involving excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language.
Until 2013 the CCRB could only pass along its investigative findings and recommend disciplinary action to the NYPD, which would then conduct its own administrative trial of the offending officers.
But under an agreement reached between the police department and the CCRB, when the watchdog agency substantiates allegations and recommends serious discipline, it now prosecutes the administrative trial itself.
An administrative law judge presides over the trial and issues a decision and disciplinary action. However, the NYPD commissioner has final say on any punishment.
The CCRB’s petition, filed on May 7, says it sought other alternatives before requesting the grand jury’s testimony and evidence.
The agency had asked the NYPD to share its findings from an investigation by itsInternal Affairs Bureau, but the department refused.
“I’ve asked them repeatedly since December,” Emery said. “They just simply say that this is their investigation and they want to maintain its integrity.”
Police officers stopped Garner, an unarmed black Staten Island resident, on July 17 for the suspected sale of untaxed cigarettes. He died after officers wrestled him to the ground when he refused to be handcuffed.
“This is not a case that we can ignore, especially when we have multiple complaints,” Emery said. “In any investigation, if the CCRB is doing its job — which I want it to — we have to gather all the relevant evidence. Plainly, [the grand jury testimony] is as relevant as any evidence can be.”
The Staten Island DA’s Office declined to comment. Donovan won a special election on May 5 for the congressional seat vacated by Rep. Michael Grimm.
The CCRB has a June 12 court date about the petition before Judge William Garnett, who in March denied requests by the New York Civil Liberties Union and others to order Donovan to release grand jury transcripts.
Published on dnainfo.com by James Fanelli