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New York Prosecutor Seeks to Probe Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians

  • Reuters

Members of the New York City Council exit the gates of City Hall as they perform a spontaneous protest in response to police violence in New York, Dec. 8, 2014.,

Members of the New York City Council exit the gates of City Hall as they perform a spontaneous protest in response to police violence in New York, Dec. 8, 2014.,

New York State's top prosecutor on Monday sought the power to probe all police killings of unarmed civilians in his state, following sometimes violent U.S. protests over two grand juries' moves to clear officers in the deaths of unarmed black men.

The day after angry crowds in northern California hurled rocks and other objects at police who responded with tear gas, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said action was needed to address a "crisis of confidence" in the criminal justice system.

It remained unclear whether New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo would grant Schneiderman the powers he is seeking. Like the Democratic mayor of New York, Cuomo has tried to walk a fine line between expressing concern about a grand jury's decision not to charge a police officer in the July killing of Eric Garner without alienating police.

Cities across the United States have seen large protests in recent nights following the failure to indict anyone over the death of the unarmed black father of six, which happened after police put him in a banned chokehold.

The decision in the Garner case came a little more than a week after a Missouri grand jury cleared an officer in the August fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown.

"The horrible events surrounding the death of Eric Garner have revealed a deep crisis of confidence in some of the fundamental elements of our criminal justice system," Schneiderman said in a statement. "Nothing could be more critical for both the public and the police officers who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe than acting immediately to restore trust."

Schneiderman said he was seeking a temporary executive order from Cuomo shifting authority to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians to the state from local prosecutors, who work closely with local police, until lawmakers could pass a more permanent measure.

It is unclear whether Cuomo will issue the order, despite the governor's own call for reform of the criminal justice system.

"We are reviewing the attorney general's proposal," said Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa, adding that the governor plans a "top to bottom review" of the system.

The order, if signed, would only affect new cases of unarmed civilians killed by police, not Garner or Akai Gurley, 28, whom a police officer shot dead in the dark stairway of a Brooklyn apartment building last month.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose office is investigating the Garner case, on Monday unveiled a set of changes to federal law enforcement guidelines intended to set an example for local police, according to a Justice Department official.

Several members of the New York City Council joined in the protests over the decision not to indict Garner on Monday when they staged a "die-in" on the steps of City Hall.

More Protests

Also on Monday marches were being held in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Berkeley, California, where police used tear gas Sunday when some marchers smashed windows and looted stores.

Protest organizers say violence will not be tolerated.

Protesters have targeted a Brooklyn basketball arena that Britain's Prince William and his wife Kate will visit on Tuesday evening during a trip to the city.

In Washington D.C., activists protesting police violence lay prone in the street several blocks from the White House on Monday, blocking rush hour traffic. Protesters chanted, "black lives matter" and "off the sidewalks, into the streets."

In Cleveland, where the U.S. Justice Department last week said police routinely use excessive force, Samaria Rice, the mother of a 12-year-old African American boy shot dead by police in November, spoke to the media for the first time since her son's death.

Rice's son, Tamir Rice, was shot near a recreation center, while carrying a pellet gun that was a replica of a real gun.

The boy's family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the two officers involved, one who shot Rice on Nov. 22 and one who was driving the police car.

"I'm actually looking for conviction," Rice told reporters. "Tamir was a bright child, he had a promising future and he was very talented in all sports, soccer, basketball, football. He was my baby."

Berkeley Riots

Police in Berkeley, California, on Monday said they made five arrests during the Sunday night protests. One protester who tried to prevent the looting was assaulted, police said.

The two nights of looting on the West Coast contrasted with mostly peaceful demonstrations elsewhere around the United States following the decision not to indict New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo for the July death of Garner, 43.

While no criminal charges have been brought, the NYPD is conducting an internal investigation into the case. The probe into whether Pantaleo broke any department rules could take four months, officials have said. The Justice Department is also investigating the case.

Obama: Racism 'Deeply Rooted'

In an interview with Black Entertainment Television aired Monday, Obama said racism is "deeply rooted" in U.S. society. But he said it is important to remember progress has been made.

"When you are dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you've got to have vigilance, but you have to recognize that it's going to take some time and you just have to be steady," he said.

The president said what is happening today cannot be equated to what happened 50 years ago, when police in some parts of the U.S. South used firehoses, vicious dogs and batons to break up civil rights marches.

Obama says he urges young people to be persistent and not give up, because he says progress comes in steps and increments.