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Senate Democrats call for permanent special prosecutor in police death cases

There are growing calls in Albany for a special prosecutor to investigate police encounters with unarmed citizens that end in the death of the person.  Senate Democrats are the latest to ask for immediate action in the wake of the death of Eric Garner and other recent incidents.

The state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has already asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo for an executive order to empower the attorney general to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute cases where unarmed civilians are killed by police officers.

Cuomo’s spokesperson has said the governor is reviewing the request as the governor considers a complete overhaul of the system.

Now, the leader of the Senate Democrats has a bill to create an “Office of Special Investigation” inside the attorney generals’ office, to automatically review and possibly investigate police incidents where an unarmed citizen is killed. The office would also accept petitions from New Yorkers to initiative other probes, as well. 

Sen.Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the Senate Democrats, says the governor should include $75 million in the state budget for body cameras for police. She says people have lost trust in the system and changes need to be made.

“We watched a man killed on camera, and yet a grand jury decided that no criminal trial should even be held,” said Senator Stewart-Cousins. “It’s very disturbing, and frankly, really highlights the need for reforms.”

Stewart-Cousins is the only African-American legislative leader, and the Senate Democrats have the largest number of blacks and Latinos in the Senate.  Many spoke of the distress that they feel for their own children, who are questioning what happened in the Garner case and others.

Sen. Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn, was newly elected to the Senate in November. He says he watched the Garner case unfold on television with his eleven year old son.

“He was saying, 'Daddy how can this happen in America?'” Hamilton said.

Incoming Sen. Mark Panepinto, of Buffalo, says a young man in his district was shot by the police and permanently paralyzed. He says his 13-year-old daughter has also been reacting to the news by participating in protests.

“She said ‘Dad, I’m laying down in the street, my friends and I are doing that because we’re appalled by what happened,’” Panepinto said. “And she said ‘what are you going to do about it?’”

Senate Democrats, however, will not be in power when the new session begins in January and will face challenges in getting their agenda passed into law . Republicans won more seats in the election, and some GOP Senators have already objected to making major changes to the criminal justice system.

There’s also been talk of holding a special session in December to raise lawmakers’ pay and possibly reform a troubled daily stipend system for legislators. Stewart-Cousins refused to give her personal opinion on whether she wants a raise, saying she’s discussing it with her conference. But says she doesn’t do her job for the money.  

“It’s not what gets me here every day,” she said.  

The base salary for lawmakers is $79,500  a year, but legislative leaders earn more, closer to $100,000 a year . Stewart-Cousins says if a special session is held, it should as a first priority address the state’s criminal justice problems.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.