Conflict Quickly Emerges Between Top Prosecutor and Police Commissioner

Conflict Quickly Emerges Between Top Prosecutor and Police Commissioner 1

A memo by New York City’s new police leader sharply questioned Manhattan’s new district attorney over his strategy for prosecuting crime.

New York City’s new police commissioner has expressed severe dissatisfaction with the policies of the new Manhattan district attorney, sending an email to all officers late on Friday that suggests a potential rupture between City Hall and the prosecutor over their approaches to public safety.

The email from Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said she was deeply troubled by policies outlined by Alvin Bragg, the district attorney, in a 10-page memo that Mr. Bragg sent to his staff on Monday. The memo instructed prosecutors to avoid seeking jail or prison time for all but the most serious crimes, and to cease charging a number of lower-level crimes.

Commissioner Sewell, who, like Mr. Bragg, was just a week into her job, said in her email to about 36,000 members of the department that she had studied the policies and come away “very concerned about the implications to your safety as police officers, the safety of the public and justice for the victims.”

The email, which was first reported by WNBC-TV, suggests a looming conflict not just between them, but also between the new district attorney and the commissioner’s boss, Mayor Eric Adams.

The collision course between the mayor and the district attorney was sketched out during the Democratic primary in the spring of 2021. Mr. Adams made a crackdown on crime one of the main themes of his campaign; Mr. Bragg, following in the path carved by a handful of prosecutors in cities around the country, pledged to help reshape the legal system, to avoid disproportionate punishment for first-time offenders or those struggling with mental health issues or poverty.

In a statement on Saturday, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office said: “We share Commissioner Sewell’s call for frank and productive discussions to reach common ground on our shared mission to deliver safety and justice for all and look forward to the opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings.”

“For our office, safety is paramount,” the statement said. It added that contrary to the way that Commissioner Sewell and others had interpreted parts of the memo, the office intended to charge anyone who used guns to rob stores or who assaulted police officers with felonies. “All must be held accountable for their actions,” it said.

To some degree, the emerging tensions between the commissioner and Mr. Bragg reflect a broader political argument between centrist Democrats across the nation looking to soothe voters worried about crime and a movement of progressive prosecutors that has pushed for more lenient policies to make the justice system more fair and less biased.

Hiram Durán for The New York Times

Some of those tensions are likely to play out in Albany this year in a debate over whether to scale back changes in a state bail law that went into effect two years ago, and that provoked strong reactions almost immediately.

There is always 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.

Mr. Adams has been complimentary about Mr. Bragg when asked about him in recent interviews, calling him a “great prosecutor” and declining to criticize the memo. Asked about the commissioner’s email, the mayor’s office responded with a statement from Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser: “The mayor has deep respect for the district attorney and looks forward to working with him and the police commissioner to make sure the streets are safe, and to discussing any concerns directly.”

A police spokesman said the email “speaks for itself.”

Mr. Bragg and Mr. Adams, both Democrats, have significant histories in law enforcement, and both have pledged some measure of reform. Mr. Bragg, a former federal prosecutor, stood out in a competitive primary vowing to balance safety with justice. Mr. Adams, a former police captain, has spoken out against police brutality and, while serving, pushed for changes within the department.

Mr. Bragg is the first Black person to lead the district attorney’s office, Mr. Adams is the second Black mayor in the city’s history, and Commissioner Sewell is the first woman and third Black person to lead the Police Department.

In his memo, Mr. Bragg instructed his prosecutors that unless they were required by law to do otherwise, they should ask judges for jail or prison time only for those who had committed serious offenses, including murder, sexual assault and major economic crimes. Others, he has said, would be directed to programs better equipped to deal with the issues that had led them to commit the crimes.

The new district attorney also instructed his prosecutors not to charge a number of misdemeanors. Many of the crimes on his list already were not being prosecuted by his predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. But Mr. Bragg directed his staff to avoid charging several misdemeanors which previously had been charged, including resisting arrest.

“These policy changes not only will, in and of themselves, make us safer; they also will free up prosecutorial resources to focus on violent crime,” Mr. Bragg said in his memo.

The directive on resisting arrest was among those that Commissioner Sewell expressed most concern about. She said that it would send a message to police officers and others that there was “an unwillingness to protect those who are carrying out their duties.”

“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,” she wrote.

Mr. Bragg has also instructed his prosecutors not to seek jail time for gun possession without an accompanying charge. The commissioner strongly objected to that policy, saying that it “affords people the opportunity to continually possess guns without consequence,” and calling it the issue that most directly affected officers’ safety.

Commissioner Sewell’s email, sent at about 8:30 p.m. on the Friday of Mr. Adams’s first week in office, capped a whirlwind day for the city’s top criminal justice officials. Earlier in the day, the new mayor announced a deputy mayor for public safety, Philip Banks III, only after Mr. Banks made the appointment public in an opinion piece in The Daily News.

Mr. Banks had faced significant scrutiny given his history as a subject of a federal corruption investigation that resulted in prosecutors naming him as an unindicted co-conspirator. Also on Friday, Mr. Adams’s brother, Bernard Adams, was named as a deputy police commissioner. Bernard Adams retired as a sergeant for the New York Police Department in 2006, and he has more recently worked as an operations manager and parking administrator at Virginia Commonwealth University, according to his LinkedIn profile.

It is unclear what Mayor Adams’s role in the commissioner’s memo might have been. Commissioner Sewell, an outsider to the N.Y.P.D. who had been the chief of detectives in the Nassau County Police Department, a far smaller agency, was his choice for police commissioner after a nationwide search, and she reports to him and to Mr. Banks. As mayor, Mr. Adams has the ability to dictate police policy and he has, throughout the campaign, maintained that he has every intention of using that power.

Commissioner Sewell’s email dissected Mr. Bragg’s policies at length and took issue with a number of them.

She expressed concern about his instruction that robberies of businesses be treated as misdemeanors if the offender does not create a genuine risk of physical harm, and with the downgrading of certain drug charges. She asked for clarification on several policies and said his policy of not prosecuting fare evasion — which Mr. Vance announced he would stop charging in most instances more than four years ago — was a potential issue.

Mr. Bragg’s memo included an important caveat: He said that all such requests must adhere to the law. That will significantly dilute some of the most far-reaching effects of his new policies. New York law requires those who have been convicted of a felony in the past to be imprisoned if found guilty of a second such crime, and many of the worst offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences that Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors will be compelled to heed.

Prosecutors around the country with policies similar to Mr. Bragg’s have faced vocal opposition, particularly from police unions, and in the days after the rollout of the new district attorney’s memo, several such unions objected strongly to his program.

On Saturday morning, Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the union supported the commissioner’s positions. And the often combative union leader added that he was looking forward to working with her and Mr. Bragg.

But the letter from Commissioner Sewell suggested that Mr. Bragg would face significant headwinds as he tried to carry out the vision that he campaigned on. However, several of his peers in cities around the country — including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kim Foxx in Chicago — cruised to re-election after facing similar opposition.

In an interview on CNN on Friday morning, Mr. Bragg defended his policies. “This is what I was elected to do,” he said.

The commissioner and Mr. Bragg were in contact this week, and Mr. Bragg hopes to meet soon, his spokesman said. Commissioner Sewell said in her email that she hoped “to try and reach more common ground.”