D.A. Democratic forum propels hot topics in Brooklyn community

Seven candidates in the running to succeed the late Kenneth Thompson as Brooklyn district attorney focused discussion on current legislative policies at a forum on Monday, June 5.

Present at the forum held at the First Unitarian Church, 114 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, were a host of candidates, including Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, John Gangemi, Patricia Gatling, Councilmember Vincent Gentile, Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Anne Swern.

Among the issues that were brought to the fore was internal corruption. Thompson — who succeeded longtime DA Charles Hynes — having established a review unit that exonerated 22 people who had previously been convicted, there was great interest in determining how all the candidates would continue that legacy.

“The problems that have taken place about wrongful convictions were much bigger than just one detective,” said Gonzalez, who Thompson himself chose to run the office when he took a leave of absence late last year. “We’ve really changed that ethos. We have the best conviction review unit in the entire United States, one that’s been copied and modeled across this country.”

“I’ve got to say the D.A.’s office in Brooklyn does a good job with corruption and bringing it to a halt. I will continue that, but it’s been reduced substantially.” said Gangemi, 78, an attorney in private practice.

Dwimoh, who currently works as special counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams but who has worked at the Kings County DA’s office, said creation of an independent panel would be one step she would take to deal with internal corruption.

“This position as district attorney has to be apolitical,” she told the group. “You see, it does matter where you get your money from, it does matter who’s bankrolling your campaign. It does matter. And the only way to move forward in this? We have to be willing to look at ourselves, look at the criminal justice system and say ‘Who are you willing to hold accountable?'”

For prosecutors willing to violate the office of the district attorney, “not only do I want you out of the office, I want your law license,” said Gatling, an attorney in private practice who has served in the Brooklyn DA’s office.

“Wrongful convictions occur when the D.A’s office is not receptive to information,” added Swern, a former prosecutor who is managing counsel of Brooklyn Defender Services, noting that she wanted to have people report directly to her with their grievances in the office.

Other topics discussed included immigration, cash bail for non-violent defenses, and prosecutorial discretion for crimes other than drug possession.

Swern said, “It’s very very important that we do outreach to immigrants in their communities in their language that is culturally competent, to make sure that they feel safe reporting crime.”

Gentile, a former prosecutor who has served southwest Brooklyn as state senator and councilmember since 1997, said he supports legislation that would change the maximum time people can be sentenced for a misdemeanor.

“Under federal policy, if you’re sentenced to a year, that automatically can trigger the deportation process. In New York State, I would support a change in law to make the maximum misdemeanor sentence 364 days,” said Gentile to applause from members of the community.

“I’ve not read that there’s any legitimate correlation between asking somebody to pay $200 that they can’t raise, and whether they’re going to come back to court again or not. That is an absolute fiction. It is harming people who are poor, and punishing them before they’ve been convicted,” said Fliedner, the former head of the D.A.’s Civil Rights Bureau, “and I’m not having it.”

Fliedner also said things like jumping turnstiles or possession of a syringe are ‘survival crimes’ that people do not deserve to punished for, and said he would address the “shameful lack of cultural competency” by “hiring folks who have a seat at the table” in disenfranchised communities.

Among those spending the evening in the hot seat, Gentile was asked why he voted against the Community Safety Act that expands bias-profiling to include age, gender, orientation and housing status. The law, also allowing people to sue the Police Department in state court for individual and categorical bias, was passed in January 2014.

“My gosh, I don’t want to get emotional about it,” said the Yemeni woman who asked the question.

Making eye contact, Gentile said, “At the time I thought the police commissioner’s argument [against the legislation] was compelling. In retrospect, it wasn’t and I learned from that and that is a good thing. Going forward I understand that that was the wrong vote. That was not one of the votes I’m proud of. But, I’ve taken hundreds and hundred of votes, so the full package I could say I’m proud of.”

Also under fire during the question portion of the forum was Gatling. One woman, contending Brooklynites “do not care for opportunists,” asked her if she saw Thompson’s death “as an opportunity to run for district attorney, or do you [Gatling] really care about Brooklyn?”

In response, Gatling said, “You don’t know me, you don’t know my district!”

Over 10 different groups making up the Brooklyn Reform Coalition co-hosted the forum, moderated by ACLU President Susan Herman and Esmeralda Simmons of the Center for Law and Social Justice.

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