EDITORIAL: Restoring the faith

Our justice system can only work when it enjoys the broad respect — and trust — of the governed. Legal precepts and the ideals they safeguard are liberally peppered with words like “impartial” and “justice” for good reason.

Recent investigative work by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News shows that Georgia’s manner of examining killings by law enforcement officers falls well short of meeting acceptable standards for a society of free people. Trust in the system – and, most likely, justice itself – have been pummeled as a result.

All that’s made even worse when our legal shortcomings are viewed alongside the current national debate over police use of force. It creates a dire problem in need of a thorough, effective remedy.

That should happen this year. The Georgia General Assembly should undertake legislation in 2016 that will repair problematic grand jury procedures involving police officers.

When the scales of justice are improperly weighted to the extent that injustice is at risk of carrying the day, the good order of society itself is in jeopardy.

Today, it’s impossible to miss the rampant skepticism with which many people view the handling of officer-involved deaths. People of all races are among those dismayed by dismissive legal outcomes seen after some police shootings. This is not the tiresome, overblown and oversimplified pitting of “Black Lives Matter” against “Support your local police.”

America’s founders recognized the danger of citizens losing trust in government. In debating what later became known as the Bill of Rights, its framers noted that “extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

That confidence is on rocky shoals in Georgia and elsewhere. Work by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News documented at least 188 fatal police shootings in Georgia from 2010 to date. Many were unavoidable results of police encounters with armed, or otherwise dangerous, individuals. They show the dangerous world traversed by police 24-7.

Some cases, though, raise serious concerns by laypeople and even law enforcement types about conduct by police and prosecutors, or both.

The demise of Caroline Small, a troubled white woman shot dead by police in Glynn County in 2010 is a prime example. After a low-speed pursuit, Small, 35, died at the wheel of a car that was hemmed between police vehicles, a ditch and a utility pole.

In the legal proceedings afterward, a prosecutor creatively shoved the system toward exonerating the shooters. Her actions and current Georgia law all but ensured that no charges would result.

Georgia is unique among states in that it allows police officers facing possible criminal indictment to sit in on grand jury hearings and, at their end, make an unchallenged statement to grand jurors. Private citizens do not have that privilege.

Veteran lawman Vernon Keenan, director of the GBI, has said, “That law gives an officer certain rights, but I don’t know that it serves the interest of justice in the end.” His observation is well-founded, we believe.

The AJC/Channel 2 reporting likewise suggests that a major problem exists in the system that determines whether cops face charges in questionable killings. Two-thirds of police shooting cases never went to a grand jury because prosecutors chose not to do so. Of 53 cases that did go to a grand jury since 2010, the great majority did not involve the presentation of a criminal indictment for a grand jury to consider.

The indictment this month of former DeKalb County Police Officer Robert Olsen in the shooting death of a naked, unarmed Afghanistan war veteran stood out in its rarity.

American ideals demand better, we believe. Georgia should this year see through to finished legislation the current discussion about changes to our grand jury system. The goal should be to enhance both trust in our criminal justice apparatus and the likelihood that justice will invariably prevail.

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Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.