Thomas Kenniff, Manhattan D.A. Candidate, Sees a City on the Brink

Thomas Kenniff, Manhattan D.A. Candidate, Sees a City on the Brink 1

Thomas Kenniff, who is facing Alvin Bragg in the Nov. 2 election, has focused his campaign on a recent increase in some types of crime.

Thomas Kenniff believes that New York City is teetering on a precipice.

Mr. Kenniff, the Republican candidate for Manhattan district attorney, is not referring to Covid-19 or climate-related disasters, like the flooding that killed 13 people in the city last month.

No, it is crime that worries Mr. Kenniff — crime, and progressive policies that he believes have contributed to its rise, particularly the bail reform law that went into effect in January 2020, which stopped criminal courts from setting cash bail on most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Though legal experts who have studied the matter say there is no clear connection between that law and the rise in some categories of violent crime, including murders and shootings, Mr. Kenniff, 46, is convinced that a link exists.

“As a result of misguided criminal justice policies that embrace criminals at the expense of victims, we are seeing an increase in violent crime and a decrease in quality of life like nothing we have experienced in years,” he said in a recent debate with his Democratic opponent, Alvin Bragg.

The election, on Nov. 2, will determine the leader of an office that handles tens of thousands of cases a year and conducts many high-profile investigations, including an ongoing inquiry into former President Donald J. Trump and his family business.

Mr. Bragg, 48, has an overwhelming advantage. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Manhattan by nearly eight to one, and residents of the borough — which Mr. Kenniff left for Long Island about four years ago — have not elected a Republican as their district attorney since 1937.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

But Mr. Kenniff, a major in the Army National Guard and veteran of the Iraq War, says he expects to compete with Mr. Bragg given the number of Manhattanites he hears from who are concerned about crime.

“I do think there is something fermenting in response to what is happening on the street level that Alvin Bragg has not condemned in any meaningful way,” Mr. Kenniff said.

Asked to respond, a spokesman for Mr. Bragg, Richard Fife, said that Mr. Kenniff had spent the campaign “making ridiculous attacks playing on people’s fears.”

“Alvin Bragg understands from personal experience the safety concerns families face and the inequities embedded into our system,” Mr. Fife said.

Mr. Kenniff has consistently asserted — as have other law enforcement figures, most prominently Commissioner Dermot Shea of the New York Police Department — that the bail overhaul is partly behind the spike in certain categories of gun crime, which began in the summer of 2020.

Experts disagree, and point toward similar spikes in murders and shootings in cities around the country, regardless of their bail laws.

“There is no evidence linking the bail reforms to the uptick in shootings and homicides,” said Michael Rempel, the director of jail reform at the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the mayor’s office, the state courts and other institutional players in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Kenniff, who now works primarily as a defense lawyer, said that he sees a correlation and rejects arguments like Mr. Rempel’s.

“I reject it based on what I’ve seen in my own practice and the people I’ve represented,” he said. “I reject it based on what I see on the streets.”

Mr. Kenniff was born in Brooklyn in 1975 and grew up in Massapequa, in a waterfront house on the South Shore of Long Island. He attended the University of Rochester, where he majored in history. And he began to consider the possibility of being a lawyer, in part because of the unlikely influence of the actor Tom Cruise.

“Whatever part he was playing, you wanted to do that,” Mr. Kenniff said. “I saw ‘Days of Thunder,’ I wanted to be a racecar driver. I saw ‘Cocktail,’ I wanted to become a bartender.”

The movie that really influenced Mr. Kenniff was “A Few Good Men,” in which Mr. Cruise plays a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, military lawyers who prosecute and defend members of the armed services.

After graduating from Hofstra’s law school, and spending several years at a law firm and the Westchester district attorney’s office, Mr. Kenniff began the commissioning process. In early 2005, he was deployed to a military base right outside of Tikrit, Iraq.

While abroad, he defended soldiers who were charged with violations of military law and provided counsel to soldiers and civilians. He also sweated out a number of rocket attacks, said his roommate, Major Robert Kincaid, who added that Mr. Kenniff soon got used to the strikes.

“We heard the alarms go off and I was like, ‘Oh, we’re supposed to go to the shelter,’” Mr. Kincaid recalled. “And he looks at me and goes, ‘Are you going to do that? I think it’s safer in here.’”

Mr. Kenniff returned to the United States toward the end of 2005 and after about six more months as a prosecutor in Westchester, he left the office to start a law firm with another veteran, Steven M. Raiser, where over the past 15 years he has done defense work for a wide range of clients.

Mr. Kenniff spent long stretches of the pandemic housed at a hotel in Manhattan, like other service members, and on active duty at the Javits Center, which was transformed into a field hospital. During that time, Mr. Kenniff began following the nascent Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney and grew alarmed at what he was hearing.

Eight candidates ran as Democrats to become Manhattan district attorney, including three without any prosecutorial experience.

But as murders and shootings continued to rise in the early months of 2021, voters leaned toward more experienced contenders like Mr. Bragg, a former federal prosecutor. Mr. Bragg won a close primary, leaving him poised to become the first Black Manhattan district attorney.

Mr. Kenniff said he is concerned that Mr. Bragg — who supported the bail law and has pledged to dedicate new units in the office to hold the police accountable and to review the office’s past convictions — will implement lenient policies that will encourage crime.

Asked about his own priorities, Mr. Kenniff said that he wanted to focus on reducing gun crime, which he believes means also cracking down on misdemeanors, including fare evasion and graffiti-related crimes.

He said he believes in the merits of “broken windows” policing, the idea that actively policing and prosecuting petty crimes will have a healthy effect on the overall crime rate. The theory has been called into question by a number of criminologists and others, who say it naturally leads to discriminatory overpolicing.

“I’m not trying to upend the whole concept of a prosecutor’s office,” Mr. Kenniff said. “I don’t need 20-page manifestoes about how I’m going to do this, this and that.”

Mr. Kenniff has reserved much of his energy for criticizing the bail law, which was passed in an effort to ensure that poor people were not disproportionately penalized because they could not afford bail. The law effectively eliminated money bail and pretrial detention for almost all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, but allowed for bail to be set on virtually all violent felonies.

It was met with immediate resistance from opponents, who argued that it would lead to the release of dangerous criminals. In April 2020, the law was amended to allow judges more discretion to jail defendants. (It remains illegal in New York for judges to consider a defendant’s threat to public safety in setting bail, as it has been for the last 50 years.)

The law remains a target of conservatives, including Mr. Kenniff, who says that along with the disbandment of the police’s anti-crime units and local politicians’ lack of support for the police, the law was key to rises in gun crime. He argues that the pretrial release of those charged with crimes like gun possession and misdemeanor assault has endangered communities.

As of yet, there is no evidence of that. The mayor’s office of criminal justice has found that the bail law had no discernible effect on the rate of rearrest. And studies conducted in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Jersey, which made similar changes, found that their rates of recidivism had not gone up.

None of that carries weight with Mr. Kenniff.

“The notion that these policies haven’t contributed to what is going on on the street is just utterly counterintuitive,” he said. “So would I be skeptical, am I skeptical, of studies and statistics that say otherwise? Sure.”