Officer-involved shootings in Travis County will now be reviewed by a new civil rights division. That review will determine whether or not cases will go before a special grand jury.
In announcing the new process to review officer-involved shootings, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore made it clear, it was time for a change. "We are going to have differences along the way, we are going to have trying moments, but the dialogue has begun, “said Moore.
The first step in that process involves a review by a new office of Civil Rights.
The next step is the creation of a special Grand Jury which will do nothing but look at officer-involved shootings. Austin Defense Attorney Dexter Gilford was hired to head up the DA's Civil Rights Division.
"Our hope is that the public perception of both our role and effectiveness can be better gauged if in fact we provide a clear statement of the procedure we are to follow in any investigation,” said Gilford.
Cases the civil rights review determines to be justified will not be sent to a Grand Jury. Moore says she will issue a public report to explain why. "It will streamline things; my hope is that it will also inspire the community's confidence that we are approaching this correctly,” said Moore.
An example of a case that would not be sent to a grand jury is the shooting of a gunman at the Omni Hotel in July of 2015. It took nearly a year before a grand jury officially cleared the police officer who had to use his weapon that day.
Two organizations that are typically at odds with each other in these kinds of high profile cases support the plan. But the leaders of the NAACP and the Austin Police Association admit, the true test will come with the first series of cases that don’t make it to grand jury and don’t make it to trial.
"So we have nothing to lose. And frankly if it’s a clear situation that it’s fair, it shouldn't go. So we are OK with that. We think in this situation, the risk outweigh anything else,” said Nelson Linder with the NAACP.
Ken Casaday, with the Austin Police Association, said he still expects there will be protests but he support’s Moore’s plan because it promises to provide a quicker resolution for officers. "I have confidence in this DA, she talked about what she says is what she means, and I believe that, if I start seeing problems with that, seeing it become a political animal, then I will speak out like I always do,” said Casaday.
There is a plan in place to avoid possible protests when the civil rights division doesn't forward a case to the special grand jury. It will happen in a private room where the family of the person who was shot will be able to review all the evidence. "And what we discovered is that these families what they really want is just to know what happened,” said Assistant D.A. Lauri Drymalla.
The first special grand jury is already in place the members will go through an orientation next week. It’s not known which of the half dozen potential cases - currently up for review - could be sent to them.
Jim Harrington, the founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project issued the following statement regarding the new Civil Rights review policy:
"Margaret Moore's newly-announced approach is nothing more than "trust me" to do the right thing in police shootings and give grand juries less oversight in cases involving police shootings.
"She is moving full speed in the opposite direction as to where she needs to be going. Instead of less transparency and more district attorney discretion that she is creating, she should bring in an independent prosecutor from outside the county to investigate and, if need be, prosecute police who shoot someone. That outside prosecutor would work independently with the grand jury to fully investigate and, if a wrongful shooting, prosecute the officer.
"How can the public trust a district attorney, who depends on closely working daily with the police and who needs the votes of the police union and its campaign donations for elections, to do the right thing?
"The civil rights of the people are too important to be left up to the "trust me" discretion of a political official. What the people need is more transparency and more independence of the grand jury in police shootings. Otherwise, we end up in a kind of modern day "Star Chamber" phenomenon - a closed discretionary political process - the antithesis of the goals of our Bill of Rights.
"District attorneys in Travis County historically have somersaulted backwards to protect police from grand jury investigations. Moore's new policy is a double somersault backwards."
Moore said she started working on the plan back in January and it is not in reaction to the decision by the Department of Justice to scale back reviews of local police departments. Moore also said she has not spoken to anyone with the U.S. office of Attorney General about how her policy could be used as a national model.
Moore did say that she doesn’t know of any other District Attorney's Office that has a similar independent entity with in a DA's office that reports directly to the DA.