Op-Ed: How to improve prosecutions in police-involves shootings: Delrawn Small's sister shares painful lessons learned
New York Daily News
By VICTORIA DAVIS
My brother, Delrawn Small, was unarmed when he was killed in New York City by an off-duty police officer in New York City on July 4, 2016; the officer who shot him was acquitted on Nov. 6, 2017.
Delrawn wasn’t just a brother to me. After my mother died, he became a father figure to me and my younger brother, making it all the more painful I couldn’t guard him and secure justice. The day he died and the day of the acquittal were the worst days of my life.
Sadly, incidents like this happen far too often. As a result, a strong network of impacted families was developed. We are supported by strong community organizers, many having worked on this issue for decades. These families and organizers supported and guided me through July 2016, November 2017, and beyond, and helped me channel my grief into action. Advocating so this does not happen to another family gets me out of bed every day.
From these families, I’ve heard stories of deep disappointment in their prosecutors. Some treated families and community organizers like a nuisance, or ignored them outright, while others didn’t staff the case like it was a priority. Perhaps worst of all were prosecutors who stood behind the grand jury’s wall of secrecy, providing scant information about the death of their loved one.
A silver lining for me was the Office of the New York State Attorney General, which prosecuted my brother’s case. Because of the work of the organizers and families before me, the governor issued an executive order assigning legal jurisdiction for cases, like Delrawn’s, to a statewide unit. This unit is separate from any local prosecutor’s office and dedicated to cases like ours. Their independence, integrity and transparency of the lawyers who handled our case was essential to our experience.
They kept us updated, listened to our thoughts, and cared about who Delrawn was as a father, son, sibling and friend. Even when we had disagreements, we never doubted they were seeking justice for my brother.
This kind of experience and partnership should be replicated. We didn’t get the justice of a guilty verdict, but we got a measure of comfort through an independent, victim-focused prosecution with the full weight of the state behind it.
My experience is why I’m part of a working group convened by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The group of more than 40 experts from across the country including other family members like Valerie Castile, Philando Castile’s mother, and Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant’s mother, as well as prosecutors and police chiefs, helped create a step-by-step toolkit for prosecutors to ensure thorough, transparent and timely investigations.
The toolkit, which we debuted publicly on Tuesday, calls for prosecutors’ offices to have lawyers dedicated solely to this type of work, to meet with organizers and develop relationships before incidents happen, to respond to the scene immediately and to reach out to the victim’s family within 24 hours of the incident.
Because we want deaths not to happen in the first place, the toolkit also tackles issues beyond the scope of any investigation. For instance, New York organizers have long called for an end to stop-and-frisk and other policies that disproportionately impact people of color. Our toolkit recommends prosecutors no longer charge low-level offenses, such as selling untaxed cigarettes for which Eric Garner was stopped, to reduce unnecessary interactions between police and communities. This is just one of many recommendations that prosecutors can and should consider.