Campaign Promises Kept: DA Thompson Hosts First Town Hall in Brownsville
By Mary Alice Miller
During last year’s contentious campaign for Brooklyn District Attorney, then-candidate Ken Thompson vowed to support raising the age of criminal responsibility so that children under the age of 16 would not be prosecuted and imprisoned as adults. Thompson was asked recently to explain why his office charged 14-year-old Kathon Anderson as an adult after the March 20 shooting in which Anderson shot B15 bus passenger Angel Rojas in the back of the head. “He was charged as an adult because he deserved to be charged as an adult,” said DA Thompson. “My role as DA is to protect the community. I care about our children, but I care about an innocent man (Angel Rojas) getting shot in the back of the head. I stand by my decision to charge him as an adult.”
This was one of a number of tough questions from Our Time Press and attendees at Brownsville Matters, the first community town hall hosted by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office under the leadership of Kenneth Thompson. Flanked by his entire executive team, DA Thompson said, “Brownsville is a community that is very important to me. I said (during the campaign) my first town hall would be held in Brownsville because Brownsville matters.”
Thompson addressed a top priority in Brownsville: public safety. “We are concerned about the shootings and violence occurring here in Brownsville and throughout Brooklyn. As Brooklyn DA, my obligation is to keep each and every one of you safe. But it is also my duty to make sure the criminal justice system (here in Brooklyn) is fair towards everyone.”
Thompson gave gun violence stats to the audience: 34 shootings and 6 homicides so far this year.
“We have got to end these shootings,” said Thompson. “Most prosecutors around the country react to shootings after they occur. We in the Brooklyn DA’s Office, feel we have to do more than react to shootings. We have to prevent them from occurring in the first place.” Under Thompson, the DA’s Office has created a new Crime Strategies Unit to help prevent violence in Brownsville and throughout the borough which will identify impact players – young men who carry guns – and try to stop them before they shoot and kill.
Regarding low-level marijuana cases, DA Thompson has decided to implement a new policy in Brooklyn that ensures public safety which concerns law enforcement resources. Thompson laid out the numbers: 12,000 people arrested in Brooklyn for possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012 and another 8,500 people in 2013. “This year, we are already over 4,000 arrests,” said Thompson. “The vast majority of those cases are being dismissed by judges. Not by the DA’s Office, but by judges.”
DA Thompson explained that great resources are devoted to cases whether the person is brought in for having a gun or a small amount of marijuana. With 500 shootings in Brooklyn last year and 205 so far this year Thompson said, “In our discretion, we believe that we have to conserve our resources and direct them towards certain cases. We are going to look at the case up front and make a decision whether we should have that case or not.”
The majority of people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana are young men of color. “Should we saddle them with criminal records? How will they get to go to college later? How will they get employment to take care of their family?” Thompson asked.
The new marijuana policy is discretionary. “It’s not an invitation to come to Brooklyn and get high,” DA Thompson said.
The Brooklyn DA’s Office has reviewed several wrongful conviction cases. Thompson’s announcement that his office has vacated the convictions of seven men who were wrongfully convicted and should not have been sent to prison was met with applause.
“I think the wrongful conviction cases are important because no one wants an innocent person to be in prison for a crime they did not commit,” said Thompson. “We also agree that we should not have guilty people who are killing others go free.”
Thompson said he is being pressured to make quick decisions, but refuses to do so. “We have an obligation to the victims of those cases to get it right, and an obligation to the families, the defendants themselves, and the criminal justice system.”
“The situation with wrongful convictions didn’t occur overnight,” Thompson added. “They were years in the making.”
Our Time Press asked Thompson about five incidents in recent years in which African-Americans were shot and killed by police – including Shem Walker, Kimani Gray and others – that were not brought to a grand jury under DA Hynes. “Shem Walker happened in my neighborhood,” said Thompson. “Those cases are important. There is a lot to do. We are six months in and we are going to get to each and every one of them.” Thompson added, “I am not DA Hynes.”
Thompson was asked about Arthur Miller and Judge John Phillips.
“When I ran for DA I talked about what I felt was the injustice committed against Judge Phillips,” said Thompson. “As DA, I intend to look into that matter. I intend to do what I think is necessary to look at what happened to Judge Phillips.”
Regarding the 1973 killing of businessman Arthur Miller by police choke hold Thompson said, “If you are asking that I go back and investigate cases that occurred in 1973, it is difficult because I have to deal with cases occurring in 2014. We have to be reasonable here. I can’t fix the whole world. All I can do is defend the people of Brooklyn and make sure you have confidence in me as DA that I am going to do what I believe is right.”
Thompson told the audience he is aware of Eleanor Bumpurs, Clifford Glover, Randy Evans and others, then reminded everyone that he prosecuted the Abner Louima case. “But to ask me what I am going to do about one that happened in 1973… first of all, I was only 7 at the time,” said Thompson. “I am committed and I understand. We have so much to do in Brooklyn. There are so many shootings happening right now that I have to address.”
Thompson told the audience, “You may not agree with every decision we make but I hope you understand we go to work every day and all we want to do is make the right decision.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson intends to hold town hall meetings in East New York, Coney Island, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Crown Heights and other parts of Brooklyn in the coming months.