Home Social Justice Ohio senators hope to change oversight of investigations of unarmed individuals killed by police

Ohio senators hope to change oversight of investigations of unarmed individuals killed by police

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Two Ohio senators are working to bring justice to individuals wrongfully killed by law enforcement. Senate Bill 258, introduced in the Ohio Senate by Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cuyahoga, and Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Franklin, on Jan. 14 would require the Ohio Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate when an unarmed citizen is killed by a police officer.

Williams said when an individual is killed by a police officer today, the way the shooting is investigated varies throughout the state. She believes that in order to make the process fair, it must be streamlined.

Additionally, Williams said local officials are often unwilling to investigate police officers because they often have an established relationship to uphold.

“Sometimes, not all the time, local prosecutors have a relationship with the local police department,” Williams said. “So, if there is that inherent relationship, then we should take it out of the hands of that particular prosecutor and take it to a prosecutor who is not directly involved with the police department or law personnel that is involved in the shooting.”

According to the bill, in any police-involved killing in the state, the office of the Attorney General will have complete authority to conduct an independent investigation.

In 2015, 95 unarmed people were killed by police, according to the Washington Post. Five of these cases were reported in Ohio. But this list might not even be completely accurate. Jonathan P. Witmer-Rich, associate professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, said statistics are often inaccurate due to a lack of proper record keeping.

“The recent DOJ investigation of the Cleveland Police Department noted that there were repeated instances of unjustified use of force, and also that the police officers did not consistently file reports about use of force incidents,” Witmer-Rich said. “Because of this lack of record keeping, the DOJ could not tell how bad the problem really is. So the first step is making sure we are keeping track of what is happening, so we can base policy decisions on data rather than anecdotal impressions.”

Williams says SB 258 was modeled after an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York in July 2015. In that case, the attorney general in New York asked for authority to investigate unarmed police shootings. Williams hopes to bring the same system to Ohio.

Even so, Williams acknowledges that the bill would not have changed the outcome in the controversial case of Tamir Rice, who would be considered armed because he held a toy gun at the time he was killed by police.  

Nicholas DiCello, an attorney who specializes in professional misconduct litigation including excessive police force at Spangenberg Shibley & Liber in Cleveland, agrees that local prosecutors are often put in an uncomfortable situation when investigating police-caused deaths, which leads to greater problems.

“Even if you put up some kind of wall or division in the office, it’s just kind of difficult for the office that has to defend these guys and for it to be the same office that’s going to decide if they committed a crime and to prosecute them,” DiCello said. “The lack of criminal prosecution, I think, leads to officers feeling as though they are out there playing by a different set of rules and they’re more inclined to use force when the reality is, they’re not entitled to use deadly force any more than me, you or anybody else against another individual.”

Although Williams acknowledges she will likely face backlash from law enforcement unions, the Prosecutors Association and even some general assembly members with ties to prosecutors, she hopes the bill will pass and help foster change throughout the country.

“We have a hodge podge of laws across the state that are not uniform, and because this is just not happening in Ohio but all across the United States, I think one great thing that the Department of Justice or Congress could do is to pass an overarching law stating that when these cases take place, these are the steps that need to take place.”

Witmer-Rich agrees that while SB 258 is not the final solution to the problem, he says the small change is a positive one.

Using a special prosecutor who is independent of the local police department, and who has special training and experience in these types of cases, is an important step forward. It will not solve all of the problems or put an end to the debate over how to handle police use of force cases, but it is a step in the right direction.”

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