Manhattan’s Likely Next D.A. Questions Police Over Eric Garner’s Death
It was the week before Election Day, but Alvin Bragg was not glad-handing or fund-raising, not out on the campaign trail or meeting with veterans …
It was the week before Election Day, but Alvin Bragg was not glad-handing or fund-raising, not out on the campaign trail or meeting with veterans of the office he hopes to run.
Instead, he was in a virtual courtroom, questioning a member of the New York Police Department about the events of July 19, 2014, the day that Eric Garner told a police officer who held him in a chokehold that he could not breathe.
Mr. Bragg, the Democratic nominee for Manhattan district attorney who is heavily favored to win the office in the general election on Tuesday, has, for the last several years, represented the family of Mr. Garner as they have continued to seek details about the lead-up to his killing that day, an event that brought urgent attention to the way that Black men are policed in New York City and around the country.
This week, that fight culminated in a judicial inquiry during which Mr. Bragg and others closely questioned members of the police department, shedding more light not only on Mr. Garner’s death but the departmental focus on fighting low-level crimes that led the police to pursue him in the first place.
While Mr. Bragg could not have planned for the election and the judicial inquiry into Mr. Garner’s death to coincide so closely, the case drives home some of the key messages of his campaign: He has said that he will cease to pursue a number of low-level crimes, and has spoken frequently about police accountability.
The district attorney works hand-in-hand with the New York Police Department and Mr. Bragg’s involvement in the inquiry — which highlights anew a shameful episode from the department’s recent past — indicates that his relationship with the department will be more adversarial than that of his predecessors.
“I think that there are risks involved for him, because he is going to need to work with the police department as district attorney,” said Jessica Roth, a director of the Jacob Burns Center for Ethics in the Practice of Law at Cardozo University.
But, she added, Mr. Bragg’s involvement in the inquiry was consistent with priorities he had articulated throughout his campaign.
“The inquiry is to try to find out what happened, and whether people acted consistently with their duty,” Ms. Roth said. “Bragg has worked in law enforcement for most of his career and worked productively with police. Holding people accountable and thinking about issues systemically does not necessarily put one at odds with the police department.”
Mr. Bragg, 48, is a former federal prosecutor who also worked at the New York State attorney general’s office, where he rose to become chief deputy attorney general. He is running to lead an office that handles the cases of tens of thousands of defendants each year, the majority of them built on arrests made by the New York police.
Though the office can decline to charge defendants arrested by the police, it does not do so often: In 2019, under the current district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the office declined to prosecute 9 percent of all the arrests it evaluated.
That number is low in part because the Police Department responds to policy decisions made by the district attorney. When prosecutors in the office stopped charging defendants with fare evasion, for example, arrests on that charge dropped.
While that responsiveness is likely to continue if Mr. Bragg assumes the office, any disagreement between him and the department — or the likely next mayor, Eric Adams, who plans to restore the police’s anti-crime unit — may lead to public friction of the type that has become more common between prosecutors and police representatives, particularly in cities like Philadelphia where the police union has actively campaigned against the sitting district attorney, Larry Krasner.
Mr. Bragg’s Republican opponent, Thomas Kenniff, has also called for the restoration of the anti-crime unit, and for a renewed focus on low-level crimes.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer, said in an interview that both prosecutors and the police had become more politicized in recent years, a dynamic that can stoke tensions, but that the police would respect a judicious approach from Mr. Bragg.
“He has to be an honest broker,” Mr. O’Donnell said of Mr. Bragg.
Mr. Bragg has made his own fraught encounters with the police a foundational part of his campaign narrative, and police accountability is at the heart of his résumé.
During his second stint at the New York attorney general’s office, he led a unit charged with investigating the police killings of unarmed civilians, which was created in part as a response to Mr. Garner’s death. (Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, was present when Mr. Cuomo signed the order that led to the creation of that unit.)
Upon taking office as district attorney, Mr. Bragg plans to establish a Police Integrity Unit that will report directly to him, siloed off from the rest of the office to avoid any conflict with other bureaus.
Mr. Bragg has a long history of working with law enforcement agents. He is not widely seen as a bomb-thrower, but instead, a coalition-builder with an ability to make varied parties feel as if their concerns have been heard.
“I say what I don’t want officers to do, but I think it’s important in the next breath to say what I want them to do: to be our partners in fighting against gun trafficking and sexual assaults,” Mr. Bragg said, adding that he had always been “profoundly aware” that he stays at his desk while law enforcement agents are in the field.
“The police officers I work with are the ones who will then go do the arrest or do the search warrant and that’s challenging, profoundly important and can be dangerous,” Mr. Bragg said.
Mr. Bragg did not grandstand or otherwise draw attention to himself during the judicial inquiry this week, as he questioned Lt. Christopher Bannon, the police commander who, after being told of Mr. Garner’s death via text message, said that it was “not a big deal.”
Still, Mr. Bragg fought to nail down every last detail, asking a number of questions about a meeting at which the police department discussed cracking down on the illegal sale of cigarettes and the protocol of filling out a memo book. The judge, Erika Edwards, who has referred to the inquiry as a “trailblazing” effort at transparency, was occasionally compelled to hasten him along.
Mr. Bragg mentioned his representation of Mr. Garner’s family with pride throughout the campaign and Ms. Carr has, in return, expressed her gratitude toward him, particularly for his presence in the courtroom over the course of this past week.
“I am truly pleased he chose to represent me in this inquiry when he could be out campaigning,” she said. “He said he would see this inquiry through to the end. My family and I are grateful for that.”
Troy Closson contributed reporting.