Few investigations are more complex and volatile for a lead local prosecutor as those involving police shootings. How the criminal justice system handles a case can fracture a community, particularly when emotional wounds are raw and when the public demands a transparent investigation but is skeptical they can get one.
We know this well in Travis County, where dozens of cases involving lethal police shootings have been presented to grand juries over many years — though jurors have indicted only one officer in the past decade. Among some in our community, those results have fanned a climate of distrust feeding on the perception that the justice system is biased in favor of police officers.
For Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, a recent conversation with a community leader about her office’s role in investigating police shootings emphasized the need for transparency. Moore outlined myriad steps, including how her office responds to shooting scenes, attends police department briefings and conducts its own investigations.
“No, they don’t do that,” the community leader replied. Moore instantly saw a problem.
“Communities should know what the DA does … and what law enforcement does during these investigations,” Moore told the American-Statesman’s editorial board last week as she laid out details of her steps to drastically change how Travis County prosecutors oversee their investigations into police shootings.
Among the changes effective immediately, Moore’s office will evaluate each case to determine if a crime may have been committed. Only when Moore thinks a shooting was unlawful or if facts about it are in dispute will she take the case to a grand jury.
In the past, Travis County grand juries heard evidence in all police shooting cases and decided whether to indict an officer or to issue a “no-bill” when they ruled a shooting was justified.
But Moore said waiting sometimes months for the grand jury to decide inadvertently had been an obstacle to a timely airing of the facts. In many cases “the opportunity for misinformation to influence the communities’ reaction is very high,” Moore told us. The old way, she said, also left officers and families in limbo.
Moore said she also will issue a public statement about any shooting prosecutors believe was justified, thus closing the case and making documents from the investigation available to the public. Prosecutors typically don’t offer an opinion of a police shooting case, but Moore thinks it’s appropriate.
“We should be telling the community our assessment of a case straight up,” she told American-Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski.
Moore also said her office will hold regular community forums where the public can review documents, ask questions about a police shooting case and how prosecutors arrived at their decision.
We welcome Moore’s overarching goal to bring more transparency, just as we applaud any efforts to make government more open. We particularly support making documents from the investigation available in a timelier fashion when prosecutors choose not to present a case to the grand jury. And we applaud Moore’s decision to make specific recommendations to the grand jury when prosecutors believe an officer may have committed a crime. Previous policy in the district attorney’s office had been to send those cases to the grand jury without recommendation.
However, we would have preferred that Moore use an independent prosecutor — as we have called for in the past. Because they allay perceptions of blurred lines between prosecutors and police, independent prosecutors have proved to be a viable tool in police shooting cases nationally.
Moore and her staff appear to have vetted changes with law enforcement and their unions, elected officials, community leaders and civil rights groups.
“It has buy-in from everybody. We’ve never seen that before,” Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, told the editorial board. Linder said the public wants a district attorney and a system it can trust — and the changes in oversight are a step in that direction.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said that while he appreciates Moore addressing local and national concerns about the “independence, integrity and effectiveness” of prosecution in police shooting cases, he noted that declining to present some cases to a grand jury could prove controversial. Casar urged Moore to also present cases that might be viewed as borderline.
“We have to keep on monitoring as a community how these new polices do or don’t improve the delivery of justice,” he told the editorial board.
Civil rights attorney Jim Harrington, however, wasn’t in a mood to wait, blasting Moore’s policy for giving grand juries less oversight.
“The civil rights of the people are too important to be left up to the ‘trust me’ discretion of a political official,” Harrington said in a statement. “What the people need is more transparency and more independence of the grand jury in police shootings.”
The district attorney is indeed asking Travis County residents to trust her decision-making after a deliberate review of the evidence. But trust is earned — and it will be interesting to see the public’s reaction in the first instance when some disagree with Moore’s decision not to present a case to a grand jury. Moore and her prosecutors will need to cleanly articulate the reasons for such decisions.
We agree with Casar that the community must monitor the results of the district attorney’s policy changes and hold her accountable. We trust that Moore will also carefully monitor the results and adapt as needed.