Hawley takes dim view of attorney general reviewing police-involved killings

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 19, 2017 10:41 am

As protests over Jason Stockley’s acquittal continue in St. Louis, some activists and politicians have called for outside prosecutors to investigate police-involved killings.

That includes elected officials who were previously wary about the idea, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

One specific proposal is to have the Missouri attorney general examine instances where a police officer uses deadly force. But the current inhabitant of that office, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, is not particularly enthusiastic to the idea.

“As attorney general, it is my duty to ensure justice for all citizens of Missouri,” said Hawley in a statement this week to St. Louis Public Radio. “Until the legislature determines a course of action with specific legislative proposals, I will respect the original jurisdiction of local prosecutors.”

Proponents of the outside prosecutor idea, which was recommended by  the Ferguson Commission report prepared after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, contend that local prosecuting attorneys work too closely with police departments. That may make it difficult to objectively look into a situations in which an officer kills someone. The Ferguson Commission report also suggested having the Missouri Highway Patrol investigate use of force cases.

During an episode of St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking last October, Hawley said he was “leery” about automatically taking that type of case away from local prosecutors.

“And here’s why I’m leery of it: It’s because of accountability,” Hawley said last October. “And I’m very nervous about any statutory change that would move that authority away from the prosecuting attorneys — and therefore … to centralize it in Jefferson City. Because I think what you get is a loss of accountability.”

The Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly declined to pass a bill requiring outside prosecutors in 2015, a few months after Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson. Hawley’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea may provide a disincentive for legislators to act.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, both Democrats, have expressed opposition to bringing outside prosecutors to investigate police-related fatalities. But Gardner did throw her support behind creating a division within her office to handle cases when a police officer kills someone.

McCaskill willing to consider idea

One person who has become more amenable to the outside prosecutor proposal is McCaskill, who Hawley could face next year in Missouri’s hotly-contested Senate race. 

“I think that is something we should take a look at. Because this really is about trust,” McCaskill told St. Louis Public Radio last week in Washington, Mo. “If people don’t trust the system, then the system doesn’t work. And I’m not in any way besmirching the investigations that have gone on or the local law enforcement or local prosecutors. I’m saying that I believe the Ferguson Commission happened upon a suggestion that made some sense in terms of rebuilding that trust.”

When asked about the issue last March, McCaskill, who served as Jackson County prosecutor, said she was more comfortable having “accountability at the local level.” She pointed to how a prosecuting attorney who represents Chicago lost re-election over how she dealt with a police shooting.

Asked what prompted the Democratic senator to warm to the idea of an outside prosecutor, McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said, “Claire’s thinking on this is that right or wrong, fair or unfair, perception is reality.”

“And if giving these kinds of decisions to another elected official that is more removed from the community could help rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve, then it’s probably a good idea,” LaBombard said in an e-mail.

McCaskill said earlier this week she would like to see more money to support drug courts and law enforcement agencies that engage in “community policing.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jo Mannies contributed information for this article.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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