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New Prosecutors Are Reopening Old Cases Against Police Officers

At the same time, rising crime rates across the country are provoking a backlash against calls from last year’s protests to rein in the police.

“To go back and open up all the cases, because you have an absolute grudge against police officers and you’re trying to carry a badge of honor — ‘Look at me, look at me, I’m going to prosecute police officers, I’m going to hold them accountable’ — is turning the table completely upside down,” said Todd Spitzer, the district attorney of Orange County, Calif. A Republican, he is an outspoken supporter of the union-backed campaign to recall his Democratic counterpart in nearby Los Angeles.

“These counties where the ‘woke D.A.s’ are elected,” Mr. Spitzer said, “they are utterly destroying police morale. They are making it impossible to recruit police.”

The number of progressive district attorneys vowing new accountability for police has grown from a first wave of 14 in 2016 to more than 70, representing one-fifth of the U.S. population, according to Fair and Just Prosecution, a group that supports criminal justice reforms. Nearly half of the prosecutors are women, and nearly half are people of color.

Bringing charges against police officers for old use-of-force cases — especially those formally closed by their predecessors — is among the boldest of a range of changes many are seeking. Other policies have included compiling lists of officers deemed discredited as witnesses, requiring a search for corroboration to bring charges of resisting arrest, or reassessing past convictions for potential exonerations or sentence reductions.

Legal scholars say the efforts amount to a decisive test of the criminal justice system. “The stakes are enormous,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and a member of a panel advising the Los Angeles district attorney on the review of past use-of-force cases. Noting the election of the progressive prosecutors coincides with increased awareness about officer misconduct, he asked, “Will these combine to reform policing, or will we just revert to where we were?”

The progressive prosecutors reflect “the anti-cop political moment,” said Hannah E. Meyers, director of policing research at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “But if we are serious about reform,” she asked, “is this endeavor really the way to have a system for putting the best cops in those positions and for justice when police act badly?”

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