After Ferguson, state lawmaker introduces special-prosecutor bill

The proposed bill seeks to eliminate prosecutor bias.

After recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and around the nation, Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill proposed by a Kansas City representative that would require a judge to appoint a special prosecutor in cases where a law enforcement officer is charged in an officer-involved shooting.

Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, assistant minority floor leader for the Missouri House of Representatives, filed Missouri House Bill 773 on Feb. 2.

“(My inspiration) in part was what happened in Ferguson, as well as a number of other events that occurred around the country related to officer-involved shootings,” Beatty said.

The public has begun to lose faith in the judicial process, she said.

St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch, a longtime officeholder, received criticism and outcry for his handling of the Michael Brown case, in which a grand jury presided over by McCulloch declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Brown.

“It seems there is definitely a distrust amongst the general public on how the general process worked, particularly in the Ferguson case,” Beatty said. “I think the prosecutor did a number of things that promoted that distrust. So, I wanted to create a solution to get rid of that distrust.”

One of the themes Beatty had noticed occurring throughout these cases was the issue of the prosecution.

“I think part of the concerns that Ferguson raised is that when you’re using the local prosecutor, there is perhaps some special bias there because the two departments work together,” Beatty said.

The goal of the bill is to remedy that problem.

“The hope is that (the bill) would bring about a more open process that the public could support,” Beatty said.

The bill would act as a way to eliminate the potential for prosecutorial bias. Once criminal charges have been filed against an officer, the judge involved in the case would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and try the case until its final disposition.

The bill also requires this appointment when a prosecutor receives a complaint against an officer for the officer’s actions during an officer-involved death or shooting.

Beatty wanted to make clear, however, that this was not a bill designed to be against the police.

“This is not an anti-police department bill,” she said. “Some of the first people I spoke with about this bill were my local police department. It does not say if the officer is innocent or guilty, it simply creates a more open process.”

The path for this legislation may not be as straight-cut as Beatty hopes.

“As a Democrat in a legislature that has a Republican supermajority, it's got a rough road to travel,” she said. “But what I am doing now is trying to build support.”

A concern for the passage of the bill is the issue of funding, Beatty said.

Currently, the bill would require counties or cities to pay a “reasonable fee” to the appointed special prosecutors if they do not work for that municipality. The judge in the case would fix such a fee and the funds would be withdrawn from the prosecutor’s office in which the charges or complaints were filed.

As it stands, the bill could serve as a solution to some of the issues facing Missouri that Gov. Jay Nixon spoke about in his State of the State Address on Jan. 21.

“The legacy of Ferguson will be determined by what we do next … to foster healing and hope … and the changes we make to strengthen all of our communities,” Nixon said in the address. “Many of the broader, systemic issues will require sustained effort by those of us in this room.”

Nixon went on in his address to list what those issues are and how they need to be dealt with.

“We need to reform municipal courts so that all citizens are treated fairly; we need to update the state statute governing deadly force to be consistent with constitutional requirements and U.S. Supreme Court precedent; we need to support policies that foster racial understanding,” Nixon said. “And we must recruit, train and certify professional law enforcement that reflects the diversity of the community it serves.”

Beatty said she feels that without public trust in the judicial process, these problems will not be solved.

“If there’s not trust amongst the public in the police department, it just creates more problems,” she said.

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