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New York prosecutors face challenges in fight for police accountability

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A special unit that was created to investigate and prosecute police killings in New York has so far led to no convictions. Calls have grown in recent years for police officers to be held accountable and to face greater consequences when they kill unarmed citizens. New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir joins CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss.

Video Transcript

- A special unit that was created to investigate and prosecute police killings in New York has led so far to no convictions. According to a recent New York Times article, out of 43 cases overseen by the state's attorney general's office, there are only three of them have been charged, and roughly a quarter of the investigations remain open. Calls have grown in recent years for police officers to be held accountable and to face greater consequences when they kill unarmed citizens.

Sarah Maslin Nir is one of the co-authors of that piece, and she joins me now for more. Sarah, give us a little bit of context behind the creation of this unit. Why was it established, and how was it supposed to address accountability within police departments?

SARAH MASLIN NIR: Well, that's exactly what it was created for. After the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man, who died after he was put into a chokehold in an illegal maneuver by police, he was actually-- there was no crime in that case. The officer faced no charges.

Following that, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York created this unit essentially to prevent people from feeling that prosecutors, DAs, local DAs, would be bias in charging their own police forces with crimes. Think about law and order, right? That's what we know of law enforcement in the popular eye.

They work hand and glove, police and prosecutors, all day long. So asking them to prosecute their own police really felt suspect. And this was designed to fix that problem, take it out of the local DA's hands, and put it in the attorney generals.

- So people ultimately want to know, Sarah, is it working? Because experts say that the current legal system still favors law enforcement. According to your reporting, why is it so difficult to get convictions in these cases?

SARAH MASLIN NIR: Well, that's what's so interesting. Although New York's rule is the most advanced in the country, it still hasn't been able in the six years since it's been created to achieve a conviction. It has had scores of cases that it's examined, only a handful of indictments by grand jury's, and they've been acquitted.

Some are ongoing, so it remains to be seen what happens. But it really illustrates just how hard it is to hold police accountable for these apparent crimes. Advocates say that much more needs to be done. Police are afforded special protections when they use force that you and I would never be. And juries give them the benefit of the doubt quite often.

- I was going to ask you about that, because police officers in New York are, in fact, legally allowed to use deadly force in certain situations. How does that play into these investigations and whether or not prosecutors can establish that a crime was committed? What are the situations in which it is, in fact, legal?

SARAH MASLIN NIR: Well, there are a tremendous amount of leeway, and really, using the officer's judgment about the force they can use. And juries are inclined to really side with officers, because they do need to have special permission to use force in the course of their jobs, right? You and I can't say, put them up or cuff anyone.

But police need to be able to use force, so that's the thorny issue. And going forward, there is some legislation working its way around that would codify, what's excessive force? What's too much? When does it violate the law, and when should police not be protected in using that level of force?

- And because, as I understand it, right now, only prosecutors can only pursue cases that result in death, and the victim has to actually be unarmed. But it sounds like you're alluding to this new law that's set to go into effect next month that will change that. What more can you tell us about it?

SARAH MASLIN NIR: Well, that's going to change things, and really, the attorney general's office says, it will triple their caseload. Because, right now, the person who is killed by police in order for this to go into an investigation by the attorney general has to be totally unarmed, and we're talking the person can have even used a chair in self-defense as one case was illustrated, completely unarmed. But this new law, the crux of it is, even if a person fought back, even if a person wielded a weapon, but was killed by police, they can still be examined under this.

- All right, Sarah Maslin Nir, thank you.

SARAH MASLIN NIR: Thank you so much.