News media throughout the state have reported on the fallout from an August 27th incident in Indianapolis involving a rowdy group of off-duty police officers. Seventeen officers were accused of getting drunk at a party in Mayor Goldsmith’s suite at Victory Field, the City’s new ballpark. According to the reports of nearly…
News media throughout the state have reported on the fallout from an August 27th incident in Indianapolis involving a rowdy group of off-duty police officers. Seventeen officers were accused of getting drunk at a party in Mayor Goldsmith’s suite at Victory Field, the City’s new ballpark. According to the reports of nearly fifty witnesses, they proceeded to drink still more at a local bar, then shouted lewd remarks at women pedestrians, hurled racial insults at minority passersby, and dragged a black male out of a car and beat him.
The incident quickly became known as "the police brawl." Because it came in the wake of numerous accusations of abusive behavior by police and erratic disciplinary policies by the city Administration, it quickly became a source of community tension. A black ministerial association mounted protests; the police union angrily responded that a minor incident was being blown out of proportion. Citizens wrote indignant letters to local papers.
At that point, the Marion County Prosecutor announced he was convening a grand jury to investigate, raising a troublesome issue: Can a prosecutor conduct a truly disinterested investigation of his own police department? And even if he can, will anyone have confidence in the results? In Indianapolis, the answer to the second question at least has been a resounding no. People on all sides of the issue remain angry, distrustful and polarized.
Following the brawl, several groups asked for appointment of a special prosecutor. The courts dismissed those petitions because the conflict of interest alleged was not a "real" conflict, but one said to be inherent in the situation. Whatever one may think of the ruling, it is true that what we had in Indianapolis was really a crisis of public confidence. The Court held that current law does not address such crises.
On the one hand, every prosecutor depends on the cooperation of the police with whom he works. The police are his witnesses at trial; they are his partners in the job of ensuring public safety. Every lawyer has heard stories of what police have done to this or that prosecutor’s reputation when they decided he was no longer right for the job. Furthermore, prosecutors are political beings, with political interests to protect. In Indianapolis, the prosecutor is an ally of the Mayor, who campaigned for him and whose reputation was on the line.
On the other hand, administration of justice would come to a screeching halt if any defense lawyer could insist upon appointment of a special prosecutor simply by alleging that a policeman had abused his client. Most prosecutors are able and willing to punish the occasional bad cop. The appointment of a special prosecutor ought to be reserved for situations like the one in Indianapolis–where community tensions are high, and even a prosecutor doing his best will inevitably be criticized by all sides. We need a mechanism that can be triggered in such high-profile, divisive cases, where the public interest requires a disinterested prosecution that all sides can trust.
Current law evidently does not give local communities that option. It should.