Grand juries, transparency needed for police use-of-force cases

Vern Pierson
Vern Pierson

At the 1893 World’s Exposition, “Rattlesnake King” Clark Stanley famously took a live snake, sliced it open and tossed it into boiling water, and then scooped foam off the top – calling his “cure-all” snake oil. Not long thereafter, an examination of the oil revealed it was worthless. The term snake oil became synonymous with a fraud. The sale of snake oil continues on to today in the form of “fake news.”

Last year, the California Legislature, much like those in the turn of the century who purchased snake oil, bought into a “fake news story” regarding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The “story” goes like this – Brown was murdered while holding up his hands and uttering “hands up, don’t shoot” and the corrupt district attorney covered it up using a grand jury. One year after the shooting, this fraud convinced the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 227, which banned grand juries from investigating use-of-force cases.

To fully appreciate the scope of that fraud, it must be noted that the U.S. Department of Justice, led by then Attorney General Eric Holder, conducted an exhaustive investigation into the case. This DOJ report completely refuted the “hands up, don’t shoot” claim, finding that shortly after Brown committed a robbery and was contacted by the police officer, Darren Wilson, a struggle occurred inside the police car in which Brown was shot in the hand struggling for control of Wilson’s gun.

The DOJ report states that “(t)he autopsy results confirm that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back.” Holder’s report finds that all credible evidence supports Brown moving toward Wilson, briefly lifting and then dropping his hands and “charging” the officer.

Despite the evidence, just two days after the shooting, The New Yorker posted an article highlighting protesters with their hands in the air chanting, “Don’t shoot me.” The article laments the shooting of an 18-year-old “running away from the officer, not towards him.” That same day, the Wall Street Journal posted a story commencing with “Hands up, don’t shoot” and Time magazine posted a similar story calling Brown a “gentle giant.” In two days major media outlets and protesters had adopted this false narrative.

Not only was SB 227 objectionable because it was passed on the basis of the fake news, but also because it clearly violated the California Constitution. As a result, my office, supported by prosecutors throughout California, challenged this new law. Last month, the 3rd District Court of Appeal struck down SB 227, finding it unconstitutional. Like the Court of Appeal, we believe the real problem is transparency, and are committed to working with the Legislature on an appropriate constitutional fix.

Every day law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to keep us safe. Unfortunately, their job has been getting more and more difficult over the last few years. The anti-police rhetoric sweeping the country has been fueled by some misguided politicians, special interests groups and fake news stories. Although not as prevalent as the media has portrayed, officer-involved fatal force cases do occur and occasionally these difficult cases need to be investigated by a grand jury.

The district attorney has the responsibility to investigate potential criminal activity, regardless of who the suspect may be, and hold that person or persons accountable for their actions. And, the public is entitled to a comprehensive, professional and transparent investigation.

The grand jury is essential to this process.

Vern Pierson is district attorney of El Dorado County. He can be contacted at