Grand juries targeted for change

Their lack of transparency adds to public distrust

Shean Williams
Shean Williams

Black lawyers nationwide are concerned about “prosecutor’s discretion” whether or not to file charges on police officers who shoot Blacks. The Cochran Firm, founded by late attorney Johnnie Cochran, earlier this summer released a “boiling point” timeline of police-related shootings of Blacks over a 12-month period from July 2014 to July 2015. Several such shootings later got grand jury “no bill” decisions — no charges filed against the officer or officers involved in the shooting.

Holding police “accountable for their actions” is necessary, says Mina Malik, the New York City Civilian Complaint Board executive director. She and several Cochran Firm members were panelists on criminal justice reforms, including how grand juries are composed and conducted, at August’s National Association of Black Journalists convention in Minneapolis.

“The police must be held responsible civilly and criminally,” said Shean Williams.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a recent MSR phone interview that grand jury proceedings by law are “secretive.” He explained that the primary reason grand juries are not made public is “to protect witnesses who didn’t want to be revealed to ensure that people told the complete story.” He agreed, however, that it may be time to reevaluate the current process.

“I am looking at a bunch of things in the criminal justice system at the same time,” said Freeman. “I think in today’s world and the desire for transparency,” people are calling for this, he said.

However, Williams, who’s based in Atlanta, pointed out that the process, including not knowing who grand jury members are and how they are selected, concerns many Blacks in this country. “We have people who are making decisions…that are not representative of the community,” he noted.

“The only lawyer that’s allowed in front of the grand jury is the prosecutor,” said Derek Sells of the Cochran Firm’s New York office. “He [or she] is the only one who gets to ask questions. Depending on how the questioning goes, [it] could shape the minds of the grand jurors.”

He also noted that because prosecutors work hand-in-hand with the police, they may not push as hard for charges on the involved officer. “It’s a real problem,” Sells said.

Freeman said he understands how this might make some Blacks not trust the criminal justice system as a result “when you can’t say what happens in the grand jury…and you can’t explain the decision of the grand jury.”

Nonetheless, the county attorney stressed, “[The] 24 citizens [on the grand jury] make the determination” whether or not a police officer is charged with a crime.

A January Minnesota Public Radio report found that more than half of the 11 people shot and killed by St. Paul police officers, and four by Minneapolis police officers since 2008, were Black. “These are the most serious matters that the community is concerned about,” said St. Paul NAACP President Jeffry Martin, who was quoted in the MPR story.

After his appearance at Penumbra Theatre’s “Let’s Talk” event September 14, former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington told the MSR, “I think [such reports] create for some folk’s minds a mental image that this happens every day. The vast majority of these [shootings]…were judged justifiable.”

Brian Dunn, a partner in the Cochran Firm Los Angeles office, told the MSR after the NABJ panel that changing the composition of grand juries to include more Blacks and other people of color doesn’t necessarily means that more charges will result against police officers who shoot and kill Blacks.

“I think it’s not so much the race of the people on the jury, but what is their commitment to the truth,” explained Dunn. “You can have a grand jury regardless of race, [but] if the prosecutor is putting the case on in a way that is unbiased, in a way that literally demonstrates exactly what happened, then the grand jury can make an informed decision.”

Sells reiterated, “It’s hard to get at the truth” because of the so-called “blue line” that police officers often use to protect fellow officers.

The Cochran Firm’s Michael Wright, who’s based in Ohio, said he and others support the use of body cameras by police officers. Three Minnesota police departments — Minneapolis and St. Paul ($600,000 each) and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe ($42,000) — were among 73 law enforcement agencies nationwide that recently received U.S. Justice Department body camera grants.

Body cameras can help the public be “more aware of what actively is going on,” said Wright. “The police always are more believable, or the public believe that the police [officer] is telling the truth, and our clients are always lying” when it comes to police shootings involving Blacks. “I think the videos are very helpful.”

Now the Metro Transit police chief, Harrington surmised that the public may be misled into thinking that police misconduct isn’t disciplined. “That is not a correct representation of the facts,” he pointed out. “When Janee [Harteau, the Minneapolis police chief] or Tom Smith [her St. Paul counterpart] fires somebody, part of it because of data privacy, I don’t know if that gets out [and reported].”

Finally, Malik, a former district attorney, said that the public must push for any meaningful change in police treatment of Blacks. “I think we are seeing a movement across the country where police misconduct is [being] highlighted.”

Freeman said he expects the need for changes in grand juries is “going to get significant debate. There are things about the criminal justice system [that] really cry out for a solution.”


Information from Minnesota Public Radio and KMSP-TV’s website was used in this report.

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