New York City has been electing more and more prosecutors who want to reform law enforcement, ones who see the racial disparities in policing and in the (in)justice system and are doing something about it. Right now, that includes refusing to prosecute Black Lives Matter protesters who police arrested simply for being at the protests, and who weren’t violent and weren’t destroying property. The New York Police Department (NYPD) is retaliating by pulling out officers assigned to prosecutors’ offices.
That happened in the Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens district attorney (DA) offices. Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea said last week that his decision to remove the officer had nothing to do with their decisions not to prosecute protesters, but many in the DAs’ offices aren’t buying it. Particularly after four out of five of the city’s DAs issued a statement supporting the state legislature’s decision to ban chokeholds and repeal a law that made police misconduct records secret. “We must take action against the use of excessive force by the police,” they said in their statement. Needless to say, the NYPD disagrees.
Times’ sources tell the paper that “some senior police commanders were furious about some district attorneys’ decisions not to prosecute” protesters, many of whom were arrested on minor charges, like breaking the curfew. One union leader, Edward D. Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said: “It is a dereliction of duty to their oath of office” not to prosecute the protesters. “More important than undercutting the work of the N.Y.P.D., it is undercutting public safety.”
The DAs emphasize that this isn’t just about “public safety,” it’s about First Amendment rights. “The protests are important, powerful and are very positive,” Manhattan’s district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said. “We need to make sure we protect that activity.” Eric Gonzalez, DA for Brooklyn agreed, saying: “We stand for the right of people to protest.” Queens DA Melinda Katz said she would not prosecute anyone for merely protesting, “which is a First Amendment right.”
This is a group of prosecutors who are reformers, who see that the NYPD is targeting Black and brown people, who see illegal police practices like unconstitutional searches, and who aren’t willing to be a part of that injustice. They’re looking for alternatives to locking people up. “The justice system shouldn’t be the first resort,” Vance told the Times. “It should be used only when necessary, especially for low-level offenses, which tend to fall on men and women of color and those economically less resourced.”
It doesn’t help matters with the cops in that these prosecutors are now working with the public to find bad cops. Vance, for example, took to Twitter to ask citizens to report “police violence or misconduct occurring in Manhattan,” and sought out social media posts showing excessive use of force by the cops. They are investing allegations of an NYPD assault on a Black Wall Street Journal reporter, Tyler Blint-Welsh, who was covering the protests and was clearly identified as press.
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