He started the directives with these words:
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 had a knife to my neck, a semi-automatic gun to my head, and a homicide victim on my doorstep. In my adult life, 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. 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.
In large part because of these experiences, I have dedicated my career to the inextricably linked goals of safety and fairness. This memo sets out charging, bail, plea, and sentencing policies that will advance both goals. Data, and my personal experiences, show that reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer.
Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, who The New York Times reported is the first woman and third Black person to lead the New York City Police Department, disagreed. She pushed back on the policies in a memo to police officers that NBC New York obtained. “As you all have likely heard by now, this week, the Manhattan District Attorney made public new policies about what charges the office would decline to prosecute and or downgrade,” Sewell wrote. “I have studied these policies and I am very concerned about the implications to your safety as police officers, the safety of the public and justice for the victims.
“I am making my concerns known to the Manhattan District Attorney and hope to have frank and productive discussions to try and reach more common ground.”
“I believe in criminal justice reform. I believe in reform that make sense when applied collaboratively. In that same vein, I am concerned about sweeping edicts that seem to remove discretion, not just from police officers, but also from Assistant District Attorneys regarding what crimes to prosecute and how to charge them.”
Having that discretion has ended in such widespread claims of race-based police brutality, racial profiling, and corruption that newsrooms are devoting entire positions to reporting on police brutality. Such was the case in my work for Atlanta Black Star and in most of my work for Daily Kos. Yet and still, police have been allowed to use their discretion time and time again.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used his discretion to target Floyd, who was murdered after being accused of using a counterfeit $20-bill, and former New York City officer Daniel Pantaleo was allowed to use his discretion in targeting Eric Garner. He was killed after being accused of selling loose cigarettes. Aurora police officers were allowed to use their discretion in pursuing 23-year-old massage therapist and self-taught violinist Elijah McClain, who ended up dead after simply being described as “suspicious.”
In a case against those accused in McClain’s death, former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic Peter Cichuniec and former Aurora police officers Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema, and Jason Rosenblatt asked a judge at a hearing on Friday to consider whether there is enough evidence to support charges against them, according to the Denver Post. Former paramedic Jeremy Cooper, who was not a part of the court hearing, is listed with the four other men in a 32-count indictment accusing officers of attacking McClain shortly after encountering him in a ski mask on Aug. 24, 2019. McClain, who wore the mask because he had anemia and would sometimes get cold, was dancing on his walk home from a convenience store before officers arrived and determined he needed to be immediately placed in a chokehold.
“When medical responders arrived, after about 15 minutes, paramedics injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative,” New York Times journalist Lucy Tompkins wrote. McClain was taken to the University of Colorado Medical Center, declared brain dead on Aug. 27, 2019, and taken off of life support three days later.
All that officer discretion and medical responder discretion, and McClain still ended up dead. In fact, 491 police officers died too in the line of duty last year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Something is not working. Why isn’t creating policies that could mean fewer officers putting themselves at risk considered a logical solution?