Sunset Park

Broken Windows Town Hall: Sunset Park brings officials, activists & community together

Activists Demand and Officials Promise Significant Reform in Prosecution of Low-Level Offenses

July 6, 2017 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Attendees gather at the Sunset Park rec center as the Sunset Park broken windows town hall forum gets underway. Eagle photos by Andy Katz
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The highly anticipated Broken Windows Town Hall: Sunset Park filled the eponymous park’s recreation hall with elected officials, candidates, community organizers and activists for a forum on June 30. The event, sponsored by El Grito de Sunset Park, turned in part contentious, optimistic and deeply emotional.

“I’m here to listen,” Acting Brooklyn District Attorney and DA candidate Eric Gonzalez told an audience perspiring in rain forest-level humidity. Gonzalez joined NYC Public Advocate Letitia James at a table facing the assembly.

Both officials got an earful.

“They promise things, [but] once they’re in office…” insisted Hortencia Petersen, aunt to slain Pink Houses resident Akai Gurley, after being introduced by emcee Shannon Elayne. “Ken Thompson promised, but once he got in, the Gurley case was pushed to the back burner.”

Once Petersen resumed her seat, Elayne took the microphone, confronting Gonzalez: “Do you think that [the DA’s Office recommendation of no jail time for Gurley’s killer, rookie NYPD Officer Peter Liang] was the right decision? Why? Are you going to hold cops accountable?”

The acting DA gamely accepted the challenge: “We took the position that it wasn’t an accident, but a crime,” Gonzalez replied. “Ken Thompson obtained a Grand Jury indictment. Thompson recommended six months…”

“We know what happened,” Elayne interrupted, to applause from the audience. “We were there. What is your feeling on the no-jail-time recommendation?”

Meanwhile, Petersen left her chair and returned to stand in front of the forum next to Elayne, waiting for Gonzalez’s answer.

“The recommendation was based on what Liang actually did,” Gonzalez started.

“He killed someone. He killed someone!” Petersen interjected.

“The fact is that Liang should not be held responsible for the wrongdoings of other police officers,” Gonzalez persisted. “[DA Ken Thompson] made a difficult decision and I stand behind that decision.”

Elayne added, in reference to Liang and his partner’s post-shooting actions, “They attempted to bypass police radios, using personal cellphones. People go to jail for that!”

Peter Wong of Community Board 7 raised his hand and said, “The injustice is not in the lack of jail — [Liang] was poorly trained and supervised. Injustice is so many cases involving African-American victims are never indicted!”

With that, the meeting moved on to the broader topic of broken windows policing.

“Broken windows means more than 2,000 stolen lives!” claimed an impassioned Nicholas Heyward Sr., who has championed for justice for his son, Nicholas Jr., since his shooting death by NYCHA Police in 1994. “We don’t need it no more!”

Despite a sympathetic tone throughout the evening, the meeting ended with broken windows very much still intact.

Nevertheless, both the acting DA and public advocate expressed clear intentions to reform the status quo.

“There are over 1.5 million summons warrants in New York City, a quarter of them are in Brooklyn,” said Gonzalez, referring to what, in some communities, are ubiquitous warrants that lurk in the background of people’s lives because of failure to respond to a citation for a minor offense. “There aren’t 400,000 criminals in Brooklyn. When we cancel these warrants; it will free up our manpower to deal with violent crime.”

“I strongly believe we must close down Riker’s Island!” Letitia James said, to wild cheers and sustained applause.

Both officials heard concerns from immigration and street vendor advocates about the federal government’s aggressive efforts to deport all undocumented persons along with any immigrant convicted of even a minor crime. Gonzalez pointed to his office’s new policy that requires prosecutors to consider the immigration consequences of specific charges, and to attempt to arrive at a disposition that is “immigration neutral.”

Bail reform for low-level offenses was also promised.

“Bail has disproportionate impact on poor and working people,” James declared.

“I’m changing the process of bail,” Gonzalez insisted. “In time, we’re not going to be asking for bail on low-level [misdemeanor] cases. We’re going to be seeking supervised release more often.”


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