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Opinion: Why stop at one special prosecutor?

Monday, January 04, 2016
Crain's Chicago Business
by Cook County Commissioner Richard R. Boykin

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order last summer appointing a special prosecutor for all cases involving police shootings of unarmed civilians, he said, “A criminal justice system doesn't work without trust.”

As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces the fallout from yet another police shooting, it's clear that, in Chicago, such trust has eroded—almost to the point of a complete breakdown.

However, with the lion's share of attention focused on the mayor and the Chicago Police Department, those of us who serve in government should not ignore the larger systemic problem in our criminal justice system when it comes to police prosecutions.

The heart of the issue: How can we trust government prosecutors who rely on police for evidence and assistance with their investigations? How can these prosecutors suddenly become impartial when a police officer is a defendant?

In Cook County, our code of ordinances enables the state's attorney's office to enlist the Chicago Police Department to function on its behalf. In other words, if Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez needs help gathering evidence to build a case against a defendant, she is free to use the CPD to help her get the job done.

Assistant state's attorneys also frequently rely on police officers as witnesses at trial. Many cases would fall apart if not for an officer's testimony. Alvarez needs the Police Department in order for her office to meet its most basic requirements.

How, then, can we expect the state's attorney to approach a police-involved shooting with complete objectivity? The only logical answer to this question is that we cannot.

That is why last month I introduced an ordinance before the Cook County Board of Commissioners that, much like Gov. Cuomo's executive order in New York, would require a special state's attorney in all police prosecutions—including, most significantly, those that involve police shootings of unarmed civilians. That ordinance will be voted on by the board Jan. 13.

In the meantime, as his counterpart in New York has demonstrated, Gov. Bruce Rauner can take the step of issuing a statewide executive order to require special prosecutors in all cases in Illinois that involve police shootings of unarmed civilians.

The roots of Chicago's current crisis of confidence in its criminal justice system are many. Real systemic reform will take time.

However, there is one simple step we can take right now to restore the public faith: Let's require the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle police shootings of unarmed civilians.

Gov. Rauner should take that step immediately.

Richard R. Boykin is a Cook County commissioner for the 1st District and a partner at Barnes & Thornburg.

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