Q & A with Brooklyn Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
Building upon the legacy of DA Thompson:
- What, in your opinion, will be the legacy of DA Thompson within the annals of Brooklyn history?
- Ken Thompson’s impact on Brooklyn and on the country was important and historic. Running on a platform of making the criminal justice system fair to all, and with no experience as an elected official, he defeated an incumbent District Attorney who had more than 20 years in office. Voters were appreciative of Ken’s commitment to criminal justice reform and fundamental fairness. They recognized him as a man of integrity who would fulfill his promises of reform when he got into office. And in the short time he had in office, he did fulfill those promises: one of his first acts as the new DA was to start a Conviction Review Unit, which he asked me to set up. Our CRU has to date vacated 22 wrongful convictions and we have another 100 cases under review; the unit has become a model for the country.
Ken created the “Begin Again” program to vacate low-level summons warrants that leave people with outstanding summonses for things like walking a dog without a leash at risk of being arrested and put through the system at any time. That program has since been replicated in Manhattan and the Bronx. I would like to take it a step further and dismiss all summons warrants outstanding in Brooklyn that are 10 or more years old. DA Thompson also kept his promise to stop prosecuting people charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana, noting that these arrests disproportionately affect young Black and Latino men, even though marijuana usage by whites is equal to or even greater than that of people of color. And again, a similar policy was adopted by the city and the NYPD within months. Ken’s legacy will be that he led the city in a new direction in reforming the criminal justice system and proving that we can have far-reaching reforms of the system without compromising public safety.
- How do you plan to build on DA Thompson’s legacy?
- I worked closely with Ken in creating the marijuana policy and “Begin Again”. I actually took him to the Summons Court at 346 Broadway so he could witness the dysfunction, the long lines, the lack of due process and the mostly Black, Latino and poor defendants. Since his death, I have continued to implement meaningful reform with an eye toward treating everyone fairly and repairing broken trust with the community. One way we are doing that is with our Brooklyn Young Adult Court Bureau, which I was instrumental in bringing to Brooklyn. It is only the second in the country to handle misdemeanor cases of defendants up to the age of 24. It offers risk-needs assessment, counseling and a host of services tailored to the specific needs of this age group, including substance abuse, mental health, anger management, GED and vocational and internship programs. The objective is to set these young offenders on the right path, reduce recidivism and enhance public safety, all while helping them avoid criminal records if possible.
- What areas of the criminal justice system are you addressing?
- It is important to me that we reduce our reliance on incarceration as the first response in every case, which I believe we can do without compromising public safety. And the system should be fundamentally fair. We have implemented several important new initiatives this year. One is bail reform: The overwhelming majority of the people housed at Rikers Island have not been convicted of a crime, and they are there because they can’t afford the bail set on their cases. This is unfair. I have implemented a new policy that instructs ADAs that in most misdemeanor cases, the default position is not to request bail, but to consent to release. Bail should not be requested when we don’t intend to seek jail time, and must never be used as leverage to obtain a guilty plea. There are some exceptions to this policy of presumptive release, such as cases of domestic violence, sex crimes and those with a history of convictions or bench warrants. But even in these cases, ADAs may still consent to supervised release in lieu of bail in the appropriate circumstances. Brooklyn has a robust supervised release program that started as a pilot program and was so successful it has since been expanded citywide.
- What has been the effect of your policy of no bail for most misdemeanors?
- The policy was implemented in April. We are still measuring the effect, but already we are changing the assumptions regarding when people should be incarcerated pre-trial. In many of these cases, the defendant is not looking at a substantial jail sentence in the case so it’s not fair for them to be incarcerated while the case is pending.
- Can you tell us about the immigration policy that you implemented earlier this year?
- We have to stand by our immigrant community in Brooklyn. I am committed to equal and fair justice for all Brooklyn residents, non-citizen victims of crimes and defendants. Now more than ever, we must ensure that a conviction, especially for a minor offense, does not lead to disproportionate collateral consequences, such as the deportation of undocumented immigrants, which can tear families apart and destabilize communities and businesses. Sometimes a plea to different sections of the penal law for the same crime can lead to very different results. If I feel that the appropriate sentence for a minor nonviolent crime is community service or probation, then we should not put that defendant in a position where the actual sentence becomes expulsion from the country. That is why I have hired immigration attorneys who can advise the office on ways to resolve cases that hold people accountable without their suffering enormous and disproportionate consequences for a low-level offense.
I consider the protection of non-citizens to be a public safety issue as well. If people are afraid of being deported, they might not report a crime or be willing to testify as a witness, or they may become easy targets of crime.
Protecting Property Owners, Tenants and Construction Workers in Brooklyn’s Robust Real Estate Market:
- Many of our readers are homeowners, what can you tell us about deed theft in Brooklyn?
- I am committed to protecting Brooklyn’s long-term residents who have been the backbone of the community for decades, and who were here, dedicated to their neighborhoods, when crime was much higher and others were fleeing for the safety of the suburbs. These homeowners, many of whom are now seniors, have seen their property values skyrocket over the last decade as Brooklyn soars in popularity. At the DA’s Office, we have an active Real Estate Fraud Unit that has been aggressively prosecuting deed theft and other real estate crimes. One of the most egregious crimes over the years has been scammers who promise to help people facing foreclosure by having them sign over the deed to their homes with the promise of clearing the debt and returning the deed. A relatively new scheme involves identity theft where impostors sell other people’s houses. Susceptible properties are abandoned houses as well as family homes with deeds in the name of relatives who have passed. We have investigated recent cases where scammers have transferred or attempted to transfer properties into their own names, forging the property owner’s name and then selling or attempting to sell the property. Here is my advice to homeowners when someone is offering you anything having to do with your home: Do not sign anything unless you have your own attorney look at it first.
- How do you learn of these crimes and what can property owners do to protect themselves?
- We learn of these crimes a number of ways: we have had homeowners report them directly to our Action Center at 718-250-2340; some are brought to us by attorneys representing homeowners who discover the theft when trying to sell a property or write a will; others are brought to us by the Sheriff’s Department. Since 2014, the Department of Finance automatically notifies owners if a new deed has been filed. One thing every homeowner should do is register with the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) so that they are alerted of documents such as a deed, deed-related, mortgage or mortgage-related document recorded on their property. Do this by visiting www.nyc.gov/finance or the ACRIS website, www.nyc.gov/acris and click on the “Recorded Document Notification” link. Finally, even without e-mail alerts, owners should be diligent about tracking routine mailings (tax bills, utility bills, etc.). If any of these stop coming, the owner should check with the city and with the utility companies. The Unit Chief of our Real Estate Fraud Unit, Assistant District Attorney Richard Farrell, speaks at various forums including at a half-dozen immigration forums that we have had in recent years, warning people to protect themselves and informing them of popular scams. And we are available and willing to come out to the community to speak about this important topic.
- Do deed theft victims have their properties returned to them?
- We have been successful in assisting victims of deed theft to regain control of their homes by obtaining court orders nullifying the forged deeds. In some cases, the victims themselves get court orders in civil actions that they initiated in tandem with our criminal prosecutions.
- Do tenants, especially those in rent-stabilized buildings, have any recourse against landlords who are eager to get rid of them and collect soaring market rents?
- I intend to hold unscrupulous landlords accountable for trying to illegally evict tenants. I recently met with tenants in Bushwick who stood up to landlords who tried to destroy their apartments in an effort to get rid of them. We were able to convict the landlords, which is a rare thing because of a high legal bar to prove criminality, and as part of their sentence they paid $248,000 in restitution to be shared among tenants who were harassed while they lived in their rent-regulated apartments. I personally handed them the checks last week. The landlords were also required, as part of the plea, to fund a Tenant Compensation Monetary Fund with an additional $100,000 to compensate tenants, to hire an independent monitor who will oversee the defendants’ rent-regulated properties for five years, ensure they comply with the rent laws, and report to the District Attorney’s Office. We are going to continue to protect tenants, many of whom are on low or fixed incomes, who lived and worked in these communities before market rents exploded.
- What progress has been made in ensuring that developers maintain safe work sites?
- Developers are too often taking shortcuts to cash in on Brooklyn’s lucrative housing market. They are ignoring safety protocols and hiring cheap, unskilled labor to maximize profits, putting workers, passersby and neighboring structures at risk. We recently announced a manslaughter indictment of a developer who ignored repeated warnings that his work site (he was replacing a one-story building in Bedford-Stuyvesant with a five-story building) was unsafe. Unfortunately, a young man who was working on the site died when a wall that had not been properly shored up collapsed. I will continue to bring these cases to hold exploitive developers accountable. Additionally, we have an active Labor Frauds Unit and I am committed to protecting working people and vulnerable populations that are too often cheated, such as the unskilled, the undocumented and recently released inmates who are preyed upon by employers who put them in dangerous work sites, pay them low wages and at times, withhold wages altogether.
Reducing Crime, Keeping Brooklyn Safe:
- What is the overall picture of crime in Brooklyn?
- As Brooklyn continues to get safer we are focused on the areas with pockets of crime that are at unacceptable levels. We have had our safest year ever in Brooklyn in 2016 and it looks like for the first six months of this year we are continuing to see a drop in crime. And this drop occurred while we were implementing criminal justice reforms like the marijuana policy, summons forgiveness and others that critics predicted would make people less safe. That is simply not true. In 2016, we had reductions in serious crime in 22 of 23 police precincts in Brooklyn. Our goal is to eradicate those pockets of crime continuing in 2017.
- How can Brooklynites – whether seniors, homeowners, subway riders, etc.–keep safe?
- I know that we all watch the news and see various crimes being reported but I cannot emphasize enough how much safer Brooklyn, and all of New York City for that matter, is compared with the last two decades. And I assure you we are working to further reduce crime. I think many people can avoid becoming a crime victim by using a common sense approach – keep your wits about you, be aware of your surroundings, travel in pairs or in groups when possible, especially seniors. Always make sure your doors and windows are secured. If you believe you have witnessed or been a victim of a crime call 911 – or if it is not urgent, report it to your local precinct or call the DA’s Action Center. At the end of the day, it is about remaining vigilant.
- How is your office working with other agencies to reduce crime?
- We are working closely with the NYPD on several joint crime reduction initiatives. Our Violent Criminal Enterprises Bureau conducts long-term investigations targeting all criminal activities by gangs such as shootings, robberies, narcotics sales and financial fraud. They also investigate gun traffickers, and have especially focused on those who bring guns from states with lax gun laws for sale on the streets of Brooklyn.
- How has the approach to fighting crime changed over the years?
- I think a good way to describe what we are doing is being smart on crime. We are focusing on those individuals who we call the drivers of crime. A very small percentage of the population is responsible for the majority of violent crimes committed. We created the Crime Strategies Unit to focus on those drivers of crime and keep them off of the streets. The unit also studies crime patterns and when it identifies an area experiencing a spike in violence, it works with the police to address that. This year I established a Public Housing Crime Suppression Unit to help us drive down crime in NYCHA housing developments which are so often the places where violence driven by territorial gang warfare takes place, disrupting the safety of the majority of law-abiding residents. The unit works closely with our Crime Strategies Unit using data-driven intelligence to root out crime. It also works closely with resident associations, community members, NYCHA and the New York City Police Department to proactively suppress crime and violence, maintain safety and develop trust.
- What are your objectives for the future?
- I am a career public servant dedicated to keeping the people of Brooklyn safe. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I am raising my family here. I am committed to justice and would like to continue the reforms that Ken and I began. I want to keep examining the system and improve the way we do things to be more fair and just. I believe that we can continue to make Brooklyn safer while reducing our reliance on incarceration. I became the Acting District Attorney as a result of the tragic death of DA Ken Thompson, who honored me by asking me to be his second-in-command. As Ken’s chosen successor, it has been extremely gratifying to get out across the entire borough and meet the residents of Brooklyn, to visit every neighborhood and hear about people’s concerns. I hope to gain the trust of the people of Brooklyn and continue on as District Attorney for years to come.