By Kim Ogg
While the widespread protests occurring in many American cities this week are unprecedented in recent decades, the tragedy of George Floyd’s death in police custody is, unfortunately, not uncommon.
This heartbreaking catalyst for reforming the way police interact with minority men should also spotlight how "in custody" deaths are investigated by police and prosecutors.
The way police cases involving excessive force, deadly or otherwise, are investigated has often been dependent on the capacity and willingness of police investigators to investigate their own. Having another law-enforcement agency review an incident may provide greater objectivity, but the process has troubled our nation’s conscience for decades.
That is why, as the district attorney of the third most populous county in America, I fought for more prosecutors for the Civil Rights Division. They independently investigate all shootings by police, allegations of excessive force, and in-custody deaths.
So far this year, Harris County has seen 20 officer-involved shootings and four alleged excessive force cases. In each and every shooting, our specialized prosecutors independently review all the evidence, research all potential criminal charges and defenses, and present the cases to citizen-comprised grand juries to determine if charges are warranted.
Whether or not a case is filed directly by prosecutors, such as the recent murder charge against former Houston Police Officer Gerald Goines, all felonies must ultimately be reviewed by grand juries of randomly selected citizens.
With the welcome reform of grand jury selection, our civil rights prosecutors, since January 2017, have secured indictments against 29 jailers and/or police officers for offenses including assault, tampering with government documents, official oppression, and murder. We believe this number reflects our community’s intolerance for abuse and a 180-degree departure from years past.
We remain mindful of the frustration of the families of those killed and the masses who want justice for police brutality victims. Like all things in criminal justice, this requires a balanced, reasonable, lawful, evidence-based approach to each case. The framework of our democracy requires due process for all, including accused officers.
As prosecutors, our mission is to see that justice is done. The public’s trust in our system depends on it.
My heart is with George Floyd’s family and loved ones, as Houston mourns his terrible loss. His memory should fuel efforts to improve our system and ensure fairness and justice for all.
Ogg is the Harris County District Attorney