New Pa. lawmaker wants special prosecutor to investigate cases of police using deadly force

     Temple students stage a die-in at Broad and Cecil B. Moore to protest police violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Temple students stage a die-in at Broad and Cecil B. Moore to protest police violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    A Pennsylvania legislator says he plans to introduce a measure to take the power to prosecute police away from district attorneys and put it in the hands of special prosecutors.

    Art Haywood is the senator-elect representing Northwest Philadelphia and parts of the surrounding suburbs. His bill would require Pennsylvania’s attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor “in all instances of deadly force in which a police officer is involved.”

    Haywood, an attorney and former Cheltenham Township commissioner who won his seat last month in a landslide victory after defeating disgraced Senator LeAnna Washington in the primary, will take office this January. The bill will help restore the public’s faith that investigations into claims of police violence will be thorough and free of bias, he said.

    “As we have seen in the wake of events in Ferguson and New York, the cooperative nature of the relationship between police officers and district attorneys can lead the families of victims and the public to believe that the system isn’t fair,” said Haywood at a news conference in Germantown.

    Haywood has other ideas for improving police accountability, including creating a uniform system for reporting use of deadly force by police. As a Democrat, he knows his bill will need Republican votes. But he believes that anger at the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City is more than an “urban issue.”

    “What’s at stake here is building a community where people do not feel excluded, and trust the system,” said Haywood. “I think that’s a common agenda, that goes across partisanship, and I’m hopeful that I can get some support.”

    Haywood was joined at the news conference by state Sen. Vince Hughes and state Rep. Dwight Evans, who said he’ll introduce companion legislation in the House.

    Haywood said his bill shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of police or district attorneys; in fact, he said, it would actually help prosecutors by taking thorny police cases off their desks.

    But Richard Long, who runs the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said that while he hasn’t seen Haywood’s bill – which the senator-elect won’t formally release until he’s sworn in next month — his group will probably be “predisposed” to support the status quo.

    “Prosecutors have been doing a very effective job of investigating police,” Long said, adding that he’ll be willing to talk with legislators about the bill. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”

    And a spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement that “a ‘special prosecutor’ who has not been vetted by the voters, but is appointed by a process in Harrisburg, will not be inherently immune to race or politics, and will not be better positioned to weigh the facts and law.”

    Williams’ office defended his record of making “hard decisions … based on evidence,” but added that “we look forward to working with Sen. Haywood and other interested parties to address these challenging issues.”

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