Tempers flare at DA candidate forum in Brooklyn Heights
Five of the six remaining candidates for the Kings County District Attorney race met Thursday night at St. Francis College where they clashed on various issues including bail reform, “broken windows” tactics and the outcome of the Akai Gurley trial.
“There is a litany of broken windows offenses, many of which I believe to be survival offense for those that face poverty and homelessness,” said Marc Fliedner. “I won’t be charging them, I won’t be putting them through the system.”
Three of the candidates in attendance — Ama Dwimoh, Anne Swern and Fliedner — promised to not prosecute low-level offenses, commonly referred to as broken windows offenses.
“No, we should not be prosecuting those broken windows cases,” said Swern. “Referring them to a system that continues to penalize poverty is not the answer. In the theft of services issue, they said 25 percent of those issues will remain in the criminal courts. Why is that?”
The other two candidates — Acting DA Eric Gonzalez and Councilmember Vincent Gentile — both said that there are too many people caught up in the criminal justice system, but wouldn’t commit to avoiding prosecution of low-level offenses.
“I’m looking to divert drug cases as a health issue,” Gonzalez said. “I also stated that I would follow [former DA Cy] Vance’s lead [to end prosecution of turnstile jumping]. I believe that the criminal justice system is way too big and too many cases come into it. We need to have the ability to remove those cases out of the criminal justice system.”
Things got heated when Hertencia Petersen, the aunt of Gurley, who was accidentally shot to death by rookie cop Peter Liang in 2014, confronted Gonzalez about riding late DA Ken Thompson’s coattails and not being transparent with the families of victims.
“I’m not just talking about Akai Gurley’s murder, I’m talking about Ramarley Graham’s murder, I’m talking Delrawn Small’s murder, I am talking about Kimani Gray’s murder … the Brooklyn DA’s Office failed each and every last one of us,” Petersen said.
“I’m upset that you are going to sit here and say that you did this, and you did that — no,” an emotional Petersen continued. “Collectively, what have you done since Ken Thompson’s demise? Don’t sit here and work on what his visions are. You are running for DA. What are your goals, your visions?”
When Gonzalez responded, an angry audience often interrupted him.
“What I said publicly and what I’ve said to you privately is that Ken Thompson believed that he made the appropriate recommendation, we discussed it and I stood by it,” Gonzalez said before he was cut off again by the audience.
Once things calmed down, the group moved on to discuss the cash bail system. Gonzalez pointed out that he has changed the DA’s Office’s policy on when to ask for bail, but admitted that the system will never be perfect. He went on to say that a change in the law was needed.
“Now the standard [for bail] is risk of return,” Gonzalez said. “We really should be asking for bail only when public safety demands it and not simply risk of return.”
Dwimoh, Swern and Fliedner all committed to ending the practice of asking for cash bail on misdemeanor offenses. All three, plus Gentile, advocated for some type of pretrial supervision. Gentile said that he would advocate for a change in the law that would force judges to take the financial status of a defendant into consideration when determining bail.
“We need to eliminate this cash bail,” Dwimoh said. “When it comes to murders, we are talking about a different story … but in [low-level situations], cash bail criminalizes being poor. You can have pretrial supervision and other things that don’t require bail that will ensure that you are going to come back to court.”
Candidate Patricia Gatling was unable to attend the event due to scheduling conflict.
The general election is on Nov. 7, but, with no Republican candidates running, the primary election on Sept. 12 is the de facto election day.
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