My friend who reads the New York Times has been waiting for it to provide frontpage coverage of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s memo instructing prosecutors not to seek jail or prison time for all but the most serious crimes and to cease charging a number of “lower-level” crimes. Having previously relegated the matter to page 18, the Times finally elevates it to the front page in discussing pushback by New York City’s new chief of police.
The new chief, Keechant Sewell, expressed what the Times describes as “severe dissatisfaction” with the DA’s soft-on-crime approach in an email she sent to all city police officers. Sewell is Black, by the way, as is Bragg.
Sewell takes particular offense at Bragg’s decision not to charge individuals who resist arrest. Stating the obvious, she observes that this policy sends a message to police officers, not to mention law breakers, of “an unwillingness to protect those who are carrying out their duties.” She adds:
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.
Bragg’s message of unwillingness to protect police officers, along with others he communicated — e.g., that the race of criminals should factor into prosecutorial decisions and that poverty can be an excuse for crime — makes a mockery of the Times’ attempt to downplay the disagreement between Sewell and Mayor Eric Adams on the one hand and Bragg on the other. The Times states:
Such disputes [between the police and prosecutors] are not uncommon. There is an ingrained tension between the police and prosecutors that often centers on what charges to bring and, at times, whether there is sufficient evidence to make an arrest. For the police, in some measure, the job ends with handcuffs, while prosecutors are left with proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt or finding some other resolution. But such arguments do not often became public at all, let alone so early in a new administration.
But the dispute between Bragg and Sewell has little relation to this “ingrained tension.” The disputes the Times describes in the quoted passage are pragmatic. They are over what is possible in a court of law.
The dispute between Bragg and Sewell is clearly ideological. It’s over what is just.
Bragg thinks it’s consistent with justice — as well as pragmatic, I suppose — to let large numbers of criminals walk, especially if they happen to be minority group members, and to turn a blind eye to most property crimes and to resisting arrest. His references to “crimes of poverty,” to “impacts of incarceration,” and to racial disparities make this clear.
The Times is closer to the mark when it acknowledges that there’s a political argument between “centrist Democrats across the nation looking to soothe voters worried about crime” and “progressive prosecutors” who favor leniency for criminals. There can be no doubt about which side of the argument the Times is on, and no doubt that the Times understands the politics of the argument well enough to prefer that it not break out in full cry in New York City.
My friend the Times reader makes the point succinctly:
Moderate Democrats were hoping to point to [Mayor] Adams as the future of the party. Now all they have to show may be more infighting and chaos.