January 15, 2022

Why are police chiefs and DAs feuding in some cities?


Dear PERF members,

In every city I have ever worked with on crime reduction strategies, the relationship between prosecutors and police has been essential.  And while they have their differences, police chiefs and prosecutors recognize that they both have a responsibility to their communities to prevent the next crime, and hold responsible those who commit crime.  Their focus has always been on the victims – the people who have been harmed.  They also have a responsibility to seek justice and make sure that those who are wrongly accused are exonerated. That is part of the DNA of this relationship.

But something has happened to that relationship. In some cities, police have been saying that prosecutors are not conferring with them and thinking of the unintended consequences and practical  implications of changes that they are advocating. In some cities, the traditional collegial relationship between prosecutors and chiefs is being replaced by edicts and press releases.

We noticed this several years ago, and brought together prosecutors and police chiefs from 11 cities to identify strategies for cooperation. This is all laid out in our 2020 report, Police Chiefs and Prosecutors Work Through Challenges to Find Common Ground.

We made some important headway, but the conflicts haven’t entirely gone away. The most recent flare-up occurred in New York City. In a 10-page message to his staff on January 3, the newly elected Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., announced 30 specific new policies on charging, pretrial detention, sentencing, and handling of cases involving juveniles or immigrants.

District Attorney Bragg began his message with a personal account of how his life experiences have impacted his views on criminal justice. First, he said he knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of police actions:

Growing up in Harlem in the 1980s, I saw every side of the criminal justice system from a young age. Before I was 21 years old, I had a gun pointed at me six times: three by police officers, and three by people who were not police officers…. I have posted bail for family, answered the knock of the warrant squad on my door in the early morning, and watched the challenges of a loved one who was living with me after returning from incarceration.

But Mr. Bragg also said he understands first-hand how violent crime damages a neighborhood:  

Late last year, during a stretch of multiple shootings within three blocks of my home, I had perhaps the most sobering experience of my life: seeing – through the eyes of my children – the aftermath of a shooting directly in front of our home, as we walked together past yellow crime scene tape, seemingly countless shell casings, and a gun, just to get home.

With these personal statements, District Attorney Bragg articulated some very salient points about the challenges of growing up in impoverished communities, but also about the crime and fear that are generated by criminals.

So it was perplexing that in his first public announcement of his overall philosophy, the DA focused almost exclusively on the treatment of defendants and lessening sanctions against some of them, without talking about the significant increases in homicides and shootings in New York and the personal toll these crimes take on the victims and their families, who will never be the same. New York City recorded 485 homicides in 2021, a major increase from the 318 murders in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Shootings also increased, in a break from 20 years of crime reductions.

It was left to the new NYPD Police Commissioner, Keechant Sewell, to call out the District Attorney on this. In a point-by-point rebuttal, Commissioner Sewell critiqued elements of the DA’s plan, starting with his policy on not prosecuting people for resisting arrest for charges his office will no longer be prosecuting.

“The message this policy sends to police officers … is that in Manhattan, there is an unwillingness to protect those who are carrying out their duties,” Commissioner Sewell wrote. “I strongly believe that this policy injects debate into decisions that would otherwise be uncontroversial, will invite violence against police officers, and will have deleterious effects on our relationship with the communities we protect.”

On January 11, DA Bragg and Commissioner Sewell issued a joint statement saying they had met and had an “open, candid, and productive” discussion about creating “a common vision that acknowledges the need for criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration,” but also is aimed at “keeping New Yorkers safe.”

And while this joint statement is a good sign, it reminds me of a State Department press release announcing a tentative agreement between two countries that have been feuding with each other! These public statements about changes in policy come across as pronouncements that feel adversarial, rather than collaborative.

New York isn’t the only city where these types of conflicts have been brewing.  In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner has clashed with Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw over prosecution policies.  Last month, Mr. Krasner apologized for comments that seemed to minimize the level of violent crime in the city, in which he said, “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence.” 

Wait a minute. 559 murders in Philadelphia in 2021, the most the city has seen since it began keeping records in the 1960s? That seems like a crisis to me! 

Commissioner Outlaw has tried to look for common ground with the DA, but has acknowledged that it isn’t easy. "Fundamentally, there are very key disconnects there, as far as which crimes we prioritize, and who believes what are the main drivers of the violent crime that we're seeing,” she said.

In the Minneapolis area, mayors, police chiefs, and prosecutors held a meeting this past Monday to discuss increases in carjackings and other crimes – as well as the friction that has developed between police and prosecutors.

In a January 5 letter to Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, the Hennepin County Chiefs of Police Association said, “The lack of real accountability for criminals is continuing to allow those criminals to keep committing more, and often more brazen and violent, crimes…. The County Attorney’s Office’s continued trend of not charging these cases, many involving guns and illicit drugs, needs to be urgently reevaluated.”

Wexler’s two cents

I have spent my life working with police chiefs and have come to know prosecutors and the challenges they face, so this phenomenon of police and prosecutors being in open conflict with each other seems rather strange.  It seems that the conflicts are arising where district attorneys have valid concerns about issues like overuse of incarceration for drug offenses, racial disparities in prosecutions, and bail policies that result in poor people being jailed while wealthier people are released on bail.

Having disagreements is not new. This often happens behind the scenes, when there are legitimate questions about charging and whether there is sufficient evidence to support various charges, etc. But what is new is that some prosecutors are unilaterally making decisions that impact policing, without discussing the issues with their counterparts in police departments. These pronouncements almost feel like political statements, rather than what two allies should be discussing.

Because police officers are on the streets every day dealing with the victims of crime and their families, and hearing from community members about the quality of life in their neighborhoods, they may have a closer connection to the reality of what happens when prosecutors back away from enforcement.

It does strike me as rather jarring when a new district attorney, on his first day on the job, releases a set of new policies aimed at reducing enforcement in a variety of ways, without working with the police and trying to achieve some consensus. Communities expect their leaders to be talking to each other and working toward common goals.

The wonderful life of Neil Behan

Before I sign off, I want to say a few words about Cornelius “Neil” Behan, who passed away on January 7. Neil served as PERF President from 1985 to 1988, and in 1990 he received PERF’s highest honor, the Leadership Award. 

I didn’t know Neil very well when I started at PERF as the new executive director. Neil suggested we go play golf.  And for 18 holes, Neil told me about all the things I was doing wrong at PERF, and he was totally right! I had the worst round of golf I ever played, but I became a better executive director because of his candid advice. Sometimes you have to listen to people tell you what you don’t want to hear.

Neil was a giant whose huge footprint at PERF had a lasting impact on the PERF culture. He would tell me, “At PERF, we aren't like the other organizations. We bring people together and collaborate. We’re collegial with each other. We don’t get into squabbles over petty issues. We focus on the tough questions. We’re the organization of ideas. We stand for something and stick our chin out.”

Neil came from the NYPD, and he knew how to take tough stands – none more prominent than when he called for sensible gun legislation, and he paid a price for this stand. There were those who tried to intimidate Neil, but he was tough as nails and looked them in eye and never backed down.

Neil had an amazing life. He finished high school in 1942 and joined the Army, serving in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, and receiving multiple decorations. In 1945 he helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp. After the war, he applied to the NYPD and ranked 17 out of 30,000 applicants. He served on foot patrol in Queens, and he had a role in the Frank Serpico investigation. He rose to oversee the Field Services Bureau, holding the third-highest position in the department. In fact, Neil was considered a likely candidate for NYPD Commissioner, but he was offered the chief’s job in Baltimore County, and decided to take that opportunity. Neil was Chief of the Baltimore County Police Department for 17 years, starting in 1977.

Neil was 97 years old when he died, just 10 days after his wife of 70 years passed away. He is survived by five children, 12 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.  

A tragic loss in Baltimore

I also want to take a moment to pay honor to Baltimore Police Officer Keona Holley, who was shot to death last month in an ambush attack while voluntarily working an overtime shift. Officer Holley had changed careers at age 37, from nursing assistant to police officer, because she felt that Baltimore needed police officers who care. As a mother of four, Keona was concerned about her family, and she was proud to become part of making her community a safer place. She didn’t just talk; she walked the walk.  Her death is a tragedy for Baltimore and for all of us.

In an editorial, the Washington Post said, “Officers like Keona Holley offer the best hope for police and the communities they serve. That she herself saw the need for police to be better makes her loss all the more tragic.”