By Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, ShakingNews
This year’s contest for Kings County District Attorney has not garnered much attention, but it is incredibly consequential. As the chief prosecutor for Brooklyn, the district attorney can help decide what police and prosecutors focus on, as well as how residents of the most populous borough interact with the criminal justice system. And given Brooklyn’s size and stature, the district attorney’s leadership influences law enforcement across the country.
For 24 years, Charles Joe Hynes served as Brooklyn’s district attorney. Initially elected as a progressive reformer in 1989, Hynes’ reputation was tarnished by scandals and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct over the years. In 2013, running for a seventh term, Hynes lost to Ken Thompson, a former federal prosecutor and civil rights leader.
Thompson, the first African American to serve as Brooklyn district attorney, was a progressive leader who cracked down on gun violence and stopped the prosecution of low-level marijuana arrests. Thompson created an internal unit to review and exonerate wrongful convictions, a clear rebuke to Hynes’ leadership. Controversially, however, he declined to seek prison time for Peter Liang, the rookie NYPD officer convicted of manslaughter for killing Akai Gurley.
Thompson’s time in office, however, was much shorter than Hynes’ tenure. Last fall, he announced he had cancer and died just days later. Now, his former deputy and the current acting district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, and five other candidates are running for the seat.
The child of an African immigrant from Ghana and a Native American mother, Ama Dwimoh came to work at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office right out of law school. First under former District Attorney Liz Holtzman and then with Joe Hynes, she worked in the Special Victims Unit on some of the most horrific cases, including child abuse and domestic violence.
Under former District Attorney Joe Hynes, Dwimoh created the Crimes Against Children bureau and the Child Advocacy Center, and that experience underlies her worldview.
“When children are safe, families are stable. And when families are stable, communities thrive,” Dwimoh says.
As district attorney, she promises to advocate on behalf of the vulnerable: seniors, children, youth, women and immigrants. And she’ll practice “proactive justice” to address mental health, drugs and other issues.
After leaving the DA’s office, she worked with Ken Thompson from the beginning of his campaign and pledges to uphold his legacy. Currently, Dwimoh is the special counsel for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, where she created a program offering free legal services for everyone in Brooklyn. For her, her experience is a differentiator, as she has worked with families from every community in the borough.
As DA, Dwimoh would focus on rebuilding trust in the criminal justice system. There’s a perception of a bias and she wants to fight that, making the DA’s office more fair, accountable and trustworthy for Brooklyn’s communities. That includes adapting a level of cultural sensitivity, paying attention to community events, and working with community leaders with an ear to the ground like Orthodox Jewish rebbetzins and wigmakers. And she would be an advocate for people who need help, taking a long-term view to prevent crime and not just prosecute it.
Dwimoh promises that though some may not agree with her, they’ll always know where she stands.
Patricia Gatling says she’s been preparing to be district attorney since law school, but her dedication to justice came much earlier. As a child, she went with her 70-year-old grandfather to vote for the first time in 1964, just months after the nearby Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. Gatling’s grandfather resolved to cast a ballot, overcoming legal oppression and threats of violence and economic harm.
Seeing his pride after voting, she realized that entrenched, dehumanizing systems could be changed. Now she’s trying to do the same for what she describes as a “broken criminal justice system.”
Gatling worked for Joe Hynes, challenging the Latin Kings and Jamaican drug gangs as a narcotics prosecutor, experience that she cites as demonstrating the importance of working with communities. By listening to community members, she realized that there were civil solutions to keep people from doing drugs—methods that would work better than just locking people up.
Her view that prosecutors should work with the community led to her creation of ComAlert, the first re-entry program started by a DA. The program helps people leaving jail stay out of trouble through drug treatment, employment and housing services. Gatling wants to prioritize that work to prevent future crime and recidivism, which she says Hynes started but Thompson took to another level.
She’s not afraid to take on police and prosecutors, either. Early in her prosecutorial career, she trained police officers to follow the law in dealing with cases. As the New York City human rights commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg, she took on the NYPD so that a Sikh traffic officer could wear his turban. Now she wants to create a Prosecutorial Integrity Bureau to audit cases, take complaints and prevent wrongful convictions.
Gatling would also reform the DA’s office by having senior attorneys examine cases and question police officers early on to prevent problematic cases from going forward. She also emphasizes discovery and bail reform so that the accused can defend themselves and don’t just languish on Rikers Island because they can’t afford a $200 bail. With technology and community organizations, she would make sure defendants get to court without needing to be held in jail.
As Gatling sees it, her vision and experience running the Human Rights Commission sets her apart:
“As a prosecutor you want to fix the problem and you think punishment. As a human rights lawyer, you want to heal human suffering. I can merge those two visions.”
Eric Gonzalez says he’s been doing the work and will keep doing the job if he’s elected district attorney.
The current acting district attorney, he touts his work stopping the flow of illegal guns; protecting immigrants; and reforming the criminal justice system to make it work better, and more fairly, and to keep Brooklyn safe.
Growing up in East New York in the ’80s and ’90s, Gonzalez was surrounded by crack cocaine and violence, along with widespread distrust of the police department. Even as a child, he knew the impact of law enforcement and how considerations of justice, fairness and safety played out in that work. Gonzalez says he never really left his community and made a commitment to give back.
That led him to a 20-year career as a prosecutor, working his way up to chief assistant under Ken Thompson. They shared a vision for reforming the district attorney’s office, and after Thompson got sick, he told Gonzalez to run for the post.
“I could not and would not let the office go back to what it was before,” Gonzalez defiantly declares.
In the 10 months since Gonzalez took over, he’s emphasized continuing the innovation of the district attorney’s office that started under Thompson. To make it easier for domestic-violence witnesses to cooperate without fear of reprisal, he developed a program of sending complaints directly to victims’ smartphones for them to sign, rather than in the mail. He’s maintained a focus on stopping illegal guns, overseeing the largest gun trafficking case in history. And in response to ICE’s outrageous raids on immigrant communities, Gonzalez set up a new Immigrant Affairs Unit. It’s not just about justice for him, but also about public safety: assuring immigrants that they can cooperate with law enforcement.
Underlying Gonzalez’s work is a simple vision: reducing reliance on police and jails while keeping Brooklyn safe. That includes a recent high-profile dismissal of over 100,000 old arrest warrants. He touts the work of the Young Adult Court, which includes social workers helping individuals with drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues and other life skills. People who complete the program and stay out of trouble don’t end up with criminal records. Gonzalez implemented a new policy to stop asking for bail except for serious offenses.
According to Gonzalez, 2016 was the safest year in Brooklyn’s history, and 2017 is looking to be even safer. And for that, he claims credit.
“I’ve been doing the work; I’ve been getting the job done.”
Anne Swern considers herself a lifelong public servant. Upon graduating from law school, she went right into the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. After working as an assistant district attorney for four different DAs over 33 years, she decided to change course, becoming a public defender.
One of the key challenges for any district attorney, according to Swern, is the need to manage and lead a large organization.
As she says, for any policy to truly be enforced, “You have to make sure it happens with every assistant district attorney in every courtroom in every case with every victim and every defendant.”
Swern points to her leadership experience as the managing counsel of the Brooklyn Defenders as a key differentiator compared to her opponents. While there are dangerous, violent people who need to be incarcerated, there are many people who are not violent but are nonetheless awaiting trial on Rikers Island. Swern promises to reform the system—to get at the root causes of violence and implement alternatives to incarceration. As an example of how that could work, she cites her involvement in setting up the Red Hook Criminal Justice Center, which combines community services and educational programming to help people involved in the criminal justice system.
For Brooklynites, perhaps the biggest changes would pertain to marijuana cases. While the district attorney’s decision to drop marijuana-possession prosecutions was widely heralded, Swern thinks it doesn’t go far enough, since people smoking marijuana are still prosecuted and the law is enforced in a discriminatory way.
As she asks, “Are these cases coming from Brownsville and East New York or are they coming from Park Slope and other neighborhoods?”
Moreover, old marijuana cases aren’t sealed, so those cases still turn up in background checks and databases.
Swern also advocates procedural reforms to how the office operates, including discovery reform so that defenders can better represent their clients. She would also stop prosecutors from overcharging defendants. Moreover, she would reduce sentences and bail amounts so that fewer people would be incarcerated, and those who were would spend less time in prison.
“I have solutions,” she declares.
Marc Fliedner and Vincent Gentile declined repeated interview requests.