A Call for Justice in Policing

As Manhattan District Attorney, I will use the office to combat the racist and abusive policing of Manhattan residents.

Introduction

I am running for Manhattan District Attorney because it is time to move past policing and prisons to solve society’s problems. Recent protests have highlighted what has long been known in New York’s communities of color, that our whole criminal legal system is racist, with the abusive and unaccountable behavior of police compounding distrust in the people they are meant to serve and protect. Whether challenges at the NYPD involve individual officers or broader systemic issues, right now the department lacks accountability or transparency — and the Manhattan DA’s office has been a part of the problem. The Manhattan DA’s office must do a better job holding individual officers accountable for misconduct, achieve greater independence between the NYPD and DA’s offices, and look beyond traditional policing to help keep communities safe.

This issue is personal for me. Like virtually all young men of color who grow up in this city, I had my share of negative encounters with the police as a teenager and as a young man. I have been subjected to humiliating stops and frisks, handcuffed, and arrested unjustly. Watching the young #BlackLivesMatter organizers lead these protests, 20 years later, I understand their anger, and agree that we need to completely rethink our approach to policing.

What we’ve seen over the past weeks makes clear that brute force from our police does not make us safer. We’ve witnessed police officers violently attacking peaceful protesters, running their vehicles into crowds, shooting rubber bullets, and overcrowding protesters into cramped holding cells. We had called for reducing the size of the police force long before these protests, but the events of the past few weeks have made clear that New Yorkers want a completely different approach to public safety. As always, our campaign has consulted with communities most impacted, policy experts, and a diverse set of professionals to generate the following proposals around police accountability:

Proposal 1: Achieve Greater Independence from the NYPD
The close relationship between the NYPD and the District Attorney’s office has hurt its ability to hold the department and its officers accountable.

  • We will establish an independent unit for police prosecution. Following a model recently established by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, we will establish an independent unit for police prosecution. This unit will not work directly with the police, so it will not have an actual or perceived conflict of interest. The unit will focus on police misconduct, including but not limited to excessive force, police domestic violence, lying under oath, and corruption. This unit will be responsible for building a comprehensive, verified list of police officers credibly accused of misconduct. We plan to work with the Civilian Complaint Review Board and other agencies to keep the list updated.
  • We will reject campaign donations from law enforcement unions. Right-wing law enforcement unions have long sought to influence New York elected officials — demonstrated recently by the research of our campaign field coordinator, Aaron Fernando. These unions remain significant engines of injustice and abuse, fighting against officer accountability and criminal justice reform at every turn. As I have said since announcing my candidacy, I will not accept campaign donations from law enforcement unions, including police, corrections, and court officer unions. Our campaign has also organized over 40 candidates running in 2021 races throughout New York City to join a pledge rejecting campaign contributions from law enforcement unions.

Proposal 2: Hold the NYPD Broadly & Individually Accountable for Misconduct
Misconduct from NYPD officers occurs both due to the poor judgment and misbehavior of officers, as well as due to broader systemic issues that govern police officer decision-making.

Early in my career, I helped sue to stop an illegal NYPD entrapment practice called, “Operation Lucky Bag.” The unconstitutional practice was authorized high up the chain of command. As much as we can work to hold individual officers accountable, improper NYPD behavior is often systemic, and must be thus confronted. Our office will stay vigilant to ensure that the widespread crisis of misleading testimony on the stand comes to an end. If it does not, we will investigate how far up the chain of command such practices are being encouraged. (And we will not put officers with a history of false testimony on the stand.) The same goes for any local patterns of excessive force, tampering with evidence, or other abuses of power.

Of course, not all acts of illegal conduct by police officers are authorized or encouraged, and our new independent unit will also pursue individual cases. Common cases that ADAs and investigators will scrutinize include allegations of lying on the stand, excessive force, and domestic violence. Studies show that 40% of women in families of police officers have experienced incidents of domestic violence. Intimate partner violence is one of the most underreported crimes generally, and incidents involving police officers are reported even less often, for obvious reasons. By having our independent unit process such cases, we can hold police officers to the same standard of accountability as the rest of the public when it comes to domestic violence. Finally, the unit will also pursue illegal behavior by officers when they are out of uniform, again to avoid the possibility of conflict.

Proposal 3: Reduce the Role of Policing and Prosecution
We must ultimately move towards a society in which the police, criminal prosecution, and prisons are no longer used to resolve society’s problems. These changes will not occur overnight, but we can begin that journey.

  • Decline to prosecute offenses that should not be criminalized. By declining to prosecute certain kinds of cases, over time we will discourage the NYPD from making unnecessary arrests. Throughout the campaign we have been committed to declining to prosecute sex work and drug possession, and seeking non-carceral solutions for crimes of poverty, such as public order offenses. More recently we have argued that traditional law enforcement tactics are irresponsible for regulating social distancing. In light of the recent protests, I also pledge to never criminally prosecute cases in which a protester is arrested and the only charge is “Obstructing Government Administration” or “Resisting Arrest.” I was part of the Occupy Wall Street legal team, and have seen plenty of bogus cases like this, which are a waste of the court’s time, and are intended to deter First Amendment expression. I have also pledged to not prosecute quota-driven low-level offenses that criminalize poverty, such as turnstile jumping, sex work between consenting adults, and low-level thefts committed by those experiencing economic desperation.
  • Empower local Community Advisory Boards to shape DA office priorities. Since the beginning of this campaign, we have discussed the need for a Community Advisory Board, wholly independent from other government institutions, that can provide regular and uncensored feedback on how our office is doing. This stems from our belief that people closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Our Community Advisory Board will include formerly incarcerated people, survivors of crime, local tenant & community leaders, and other professionals who spend time on the streets of our communities. We will use the Community Advisory Board to vet new policy ideas and track implementation of our many initiatives.

Proposal 4: Support Legislation and Budget-making to Reduce Police Power
The Manhattan DA’s office is part of a broader political system. We will always use the bully pulpit in our office to advance legislative, executive and administrative policies in line with our vision of a more just society.

  • We must cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget this fiscal year. We stand in solidarity with numerous organizations calling for $1 billion to be cut from the NYPD budget in Fiscal Year 2021, and were the first Manhattan District Attorney campaign to do so. Those funds could better be spent on the Summer Youth Employment Program, affordable housing, and other community-based services that would do more to improve public safety than policing. In the years ahead, we will continue to push for a reduction of the NYPD budget, as well as expenditures on jail, prison, and even our own District Attorney’s office to free resources for programs that directly support the community. We also have taken great pains to scrutinize an opaque NYPD budget, and published multiple pathways to responsibly achieving this goal, including removing police from our schools, traffic enforcement, and homeless outreach. We must also scrutinize the vice, narcotics, and gang units, which have high levels of misconduct and exacerbate community relationships. Scaling down our police force should be a universal goal for New Yorkers if we can find different ways to improve public health and safety.
  • We will support reinvestment into programs that improve safety. When policing budgets are cut, those funds should be re-allocated into strategic efforts to keep the New York City safe. As always, we will follow the community’s lead in terms of budget priorities outside our own department. Based on our experience, investments into anti-violence organizations, local groups that foster non-carceral accountability, and wrap-around services for vulnerable populations are far more effective than funds spent on policing and prison. We also support even larger funding interventions for areas like affordable housing and education, even if that requires greater tax revenues from high income people and corporations. Again, these investments will make us all safer.
  • We will support city and state legislation to hold the police accountable. This includes ideas such as granting the CCRB final determination powers over police misconduct (rather than the police commissioner), requiring police officers to live in the five boroughs, and any legislation that increases transparency in law enforcement (including transparency from the District Attorney’s office).

Conclusion

As District Attorney, I will push back against abusive and discriminatory policing practices without hesitation or compromise. My office will not be complicit in the implementation of policies that exacerbate racial, social, and economic disparities. The ideas offered here are only the beginning of how we can dismantle a broader system of punishment that does not make us safer in the long run.

In seeking accountability and ending cycles of harm, the best long-term solutions will be found in investments we make outside the criminal justice system — investments in education, health, housing, and economic opportunity. It’s clear that the current approach to policing has severed the trust needed to keep our communities safe. The strategy we must take to correct course is to invest in people, not policing, in communities, not prisons.

As with all of our policy proposals, we welcome and incorporate feedback, especially from those who have been impacted by the system or worked within it, and we will maintain this as a living document, through Election Day and when we begin to transform the District Attorney’s office. Together, we can build a safer and more just New York.

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You can read about all of the issues our campaign has led on at JanosForDA.com/Issues, including:

Our commitment to 80% Decarceration, released in October 2019, which discusses our many reforms to pretrial detention.

Our commitment to Bringing Humanity to Sentencing Policy, released in December 2019, which discusses our approach to shortening prison sentences, fixing our oppressive plea bargain system, and parole system.

Our commitment to Public Health First, released in January 2020, which discusses our plans for ending the War on Drugs.

Our commitment to Ending Solitary Confinement in Manhattan, released in March 2020.

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Janos Marton

Criminal justice advocate. Democratic Candidate For Manhattan District Attorney.