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Brooklyn district attorney candidates spar for title of ‘most progressive’

Waseem Salahi

Brooklyn district attorney candidates spar for title of ‘most progressive’

In Bedford-Stuyvesant’s historic Mount Pisgah Baptist Church on Tuesday night, candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the race for Brooklyn’s next district attorney gathered to compare their progressive track records and reform-driven plans. The forum, hosted by Faith Over Fear, a “faith and justice coalition,” focused heavily on police accountability, the protection of immigrants, cash bail, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“I’m the true progressive candidate in this race,” candidate Marc Fliedner, a former homicide prosecutor, told the audience as he described his primary goals for Brooklyn.

Fliedner’s tone and versions of his claim were reiterated by candidates throughout the night as they answered questions, gratifying a crowd that cheered for answers that seemed to reflect an understanding of racism and inequity in the criminal justice system. Anne Swern vowed to make change happen on “day one,” and later noted that she would assess who in the office is “being unfair” and remove them.

“I will not only talk about reform, but I will actually do reform,” said Swern. The candidate, who has worked for both the district attorney’s office and Brooklyn Defender Services, later said she thought “this whole forum could be about racial disparities.”

Patricia Gatling, the former commissioner for the city’s Commission on Human Rights and assistant district attorney to former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, also emphasized a desire to tackle disparities in prosecution and policing.

“Justice must be meted out fairly across the borough,” said Gatling. “Not just in black neighborhoods, not just where poor people live. That is the problem.”

Gatling’s responses also indicated an interest in increasing the transparency of the office, including making more data and transcripts publicly available on the office’s website.

New York City Council member Vincent Gentile said as Brooklyn’s next District Attorney, he would draw on his strong relationships with labor unions. (The proposal garnered meek applause.)

The elimination of cash bail, particularly for defendants facing low-level, nonviolent crimes, was a more divisive topic. Candidate Ama Dwimoh said she wouldn’t support its use it for low-level offenses, and Fliedner said he wanted to end the use of cash bail “throughout the country,” and noted he wouldn’t “take money from bail companies,” referring to Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’ choice to accept campaign contributions from bail bond companies. (Gonzalez later returned the money, and did not respond to Fliedner’s comment.)

Gatling agreed that the use of cash bail is problematic, and suggested she would increase the use of ankle monitors for pretrial supervision in lieu of detaining people. Gentile stopped far short of agreeing that the use of cash bail should end, saying instead that he supported its reform and believed the state should “mandate that judges have before them the financial status of the defendant” when making pretrial decisions.

Tension escalated when candidates were asked if they believed people of color are punished disproportionately in Brooklyn. None dared dispute the claim — though Gentile suggested the borough needed better data collection on racial disparities in prosecutions before he could create a “roadmap” for change.

Fliedner, who is white, noted that slavery is America’s “original sin,” before announcing that he would say something “nobody else at this table says out loud … Black lives matter. I say it, I’ve marched.” The crowd cheered, but Dwimoh was less pleased.

“I don’t have to say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Dwimoh retorted. “I am a black woman in America. I live it. You sit here and say I have to ‘say it?’ How dare you.”

The crowd roared. Gonzalez also reminded the audience that his experience as a Latino man and his Brooklyn upbringing, during which he felt “over-policed and underserved,” gave him insight and empathy into the experiences of young men of color in Brooklyn. The acting district attorney leaned heavily on his close relationship to former District Attorney Ken Thompson, whom he replaced after Thompson’s death in 2016, and projected a broad message of “safety and fairness” as his primary goals.

One audience member asked the contenders if they thought any “broken windows” offenses should be prosecuted.

Dwimoh said she would never prosecute any of those minor offenses, such as public urination, littering, and low-level transit-related crimes. She noted that as a policy, “broken windows” disproportionately impacts black and brown New Yorkers — “people that look like me.” Fliedner agreed, observing that “broken windows” policing can be “inconsistent with public health policy,” such as targeting people struggling with substance abuse for possessing syringes, or using the possession of condoms as a pretext to arrest sex workers.

Fliedner also pointed out that the prosecution of “broken windows” offenses can endanger immigrants: “There are ICE teams waiting in the criminal courts to apprehend [immigrants] and take away their lives.”

Swern called “broken windows” a “failed policy” that “fosters fear” in immigrant communities. Gonzalez dodged the “broken windows” question, diverting the conversation to the work he has done to shield immigrants from deportation, such as hiring immigration attorneys.

“My obligation is to protect the people of Brooklyn no matter where they came from, or how they got here,” said Gonzalez.

While some candidates emphasized past and current connections to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, implying those relationships would be beneficial, Gentile pointed out that he is “the only one with no connections” to the office — a separation that he said would help him create a fresh start, with no allegiances to tiptoe around. In a similar vein, Dwimoh reminded the crowd that she was the only candidate that had always supported Thompson, but never Charles Hynes, who held the office for 24 years before losing to Thompson in November 2013. (Hynes was accused of illegally spending money seized by his office from drug dealers on his campaign, though prosecutors ultimately dropped the investigation.)

New York City’s primary election is on September 12th. With no Republican competitors on the ballot, the candidate that wins the primary will presumptively be Brooklyn’s next District Attorney.