Natasha Sinclair leads the DA unit that investigates officer-involved shootings and claims of excessive force
No matter the day or time, when police shoot someone, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office sends Civil Rights prosecutors to the scene. Their mission: To ensure justice is done.
The first step in finding the truth is crossing yellow crime scene tape.
Prosecutors enter an often-chaotic place, where they don’t yet know if the evidence will show that police have committed a crime or their actions were justified. Some officers can be wary prosecutors, whose duty is to thoroughly and independently review all such shootings.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg recently made international headlines by filing criminal charges against 12 Houston police officers connected to a no-knock raid that ended in a shootout that killed two people and their dog in their Harding street home in January 2019.
The arrest of the dozen officers is the result of the largest probe of Houston police in a generation and the investigation has already cleared two wrongfully convicted people while hundreds of past cases are still being reviewed.
The Civil Rights Division is led by Assistant District Attorney Natasha Sinclair, one of six Black prosecutors in the division, who said that being African American gives a prosecutor a unique perspective on law enforcement.
“As African Americans in this country, we have a unique history and civil rights has certainly played a large part in that, so naturally, we may be drawn to that kind of work or that type of challenge,” Sinclair said.
However, she noted that only half of the division’s prosecutors are Black, and that the entire division is dedicated to protecting the community from police officers and jailers who abuse their authority or take advantage of their position.
“No one is above the law and every position of trust in our society has a check and balance and that’s what we strive to do,” Sinclair said. “We cannot have a criminal justice system with officers who abuse the trust we place in them. We can’t function like that. We can’t function with two different systems of justice.”
If an officer has committed a crime, they must be held accountable. If their actions were justified, they should be cleared, Sinclair said. Either result is equally important.
“For a district attorney’s office to have a Civil Rights Division is such an improvement from a generation ago,” Sinclair said. “And as we consider Black History Month, it is so important that we not only have a division dedicated to this work but that it is reflective of the diversity in our society.”
The entire division is set up to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system, which is why DA Ogg wanted Sinclair to lead it.
“Natasha is tough, New York Tough,” Ogg said about Sinclair who grew up in the Big Apple. “Prosecuting cops for illegal behavior is really hard, uphill work and the reason it’s so difficult is because a police officer can just wrap themselves in the flag and point a finger and say the prosecutor is just overzealous.”
Ogg said the Harris County District Attorney’s Office places a priority on ensuring justice for all in each and every police shooting and in-custody death because the public’s trust in our justice system depends on it.
She said she tries to educate everyone on how the process works because it can be confusing and complicated for victims and their families who aren’t used to dealing with the courts.
When a police officer shoots a civilian, prosecutors with the Civil Rights Division, who are available 24 hours a day, go to the scene. While it is still an active crime scene, prosecutors, like Sinclair, observe the collection of evidence and the police officer’s “walk-through” in which the officer explains what happened.
After the police and investigators turn over all the evidence to the DA’s office, the case is independently reviewed by civil rights prosecutors and in every instance all of the evidence is presented to a grand jury for consideration. That grand jury, composed of anywhere from nine to 12 Harris County citizens, looks at all of the evidence to decide whether they believe the shooting was self-defense or if the shooting was an illegal use of force.
If the grand jury decides the police officer was justified, the case is closed. If grand jurors decide the officer’s actions were criminal, they issue a formal charge, called an indictment, against the police officer. The DA’s office then prosecutes the case, which is resolved either in a trial or a plea.