What Alvin Bragg Plans to Do With Cy Vance’s Troubled Sex-Crimes Unit

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Alvin Bragg is all but assured to become Manhattan’s first Black district attorney after his closest competitor, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, conceded in the primary on Friday after dropping millions of dollars of her fortune into the race. Bragg, a 47-year-old Harlem native and former federal prosecutor, campaigned on a platform of criminal-justice reform, saying he would not prosecute most minor offenses and misdemeanors — cases which disproportionately impact people of color. Bragg said that this policy would allow his office to dedicate more resources toward felonies and serious misdemeanors.

Bragg’s apparent win also comes at a historic time: Last week, the Manhattan DA’s office charged Donald Trump’s company and its longtime CFO, Allen Weisselberg, in a sweeping 15-count indictment involving unpaid taxes. The charges stem from the office’s long-running investigation into former president Trump and his business practices. While Trump has not been charged, prosecutors said that the investigation is “ongoing,” meaning Bragg’s office will almost certainly handle the inquiry — and any potential prosecution of the ex-president.

Bragg has also vowed to overhaul how the office prosecutes sex crimes. Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has drawn intense scrutiny for his office’s failure to prosecute Harvey Weinstein for alleged groping in 2015, giving gynecologist Dr. Robert Hadden a no-jail plea deal following abuse allegations, and seeking a lower sex-offender classification for Jeffrey Epstein. Bragg has said that his plans will put “survivors at the center of the process” rather than focus on conviction rates.

Intelligencer caught up with Bragg on Monday outside a bakery on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and West 118th Street and asked him more about his plans.

When it sank in that you were almost guaranteed to become DA — statistically speaking, the Republican candidate isn’t going to win — what was the immediate thing that came to mind?

Gratitude. I got a number of texts and calls, and the lightning-fast speed of the internet also comes to mind, because news just travels fast. Shortly after that: “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” The space and time between primary night, and as they were counting the absentee ballots, in retrospect, was a nice period to sort of reflect on the campaign, thank folks, get a little downtime. And then this was sort of like, Okay, we’re going to move to the next phase. Obviously, there’s a general election, but to really start thinking about how to operationalize the things we’ve been talking about and thinking about [policies].

A major part of your platform was to reduce racial disparities in criminal justice. Some of the things you mentioned — not going after minor misdemeanors and offenses, like subway-turnstile jumping — a lot of those arrests and prosecutions have declined recently. There’s the marijuana legalization, the shift in Vance’s policy with marijuana prosecutions, and not prosecuting prostitution. So where does your policy come in when there’s been a decline in these types of cases?

We’re looking for a further decline. I’ve actually heard people talk about the macro statistics, and that’s important. It’s an important trend; I want to acknowledge it. But each of these cases is about a person. It’s actually, I remember, in one forum, someone sort of saying, “Well, you know, none of us is going to do that,” speaking about the prosecution of a low-level [offense]. But the truth of the matter is it does happen all the time. And so even though we’ve got a downward decline, we still have people being arrested for things that don’t have anything to do with public safety.

In each of those arrests is someone missing a day of work or child-care issues and elder-care issues — lots of court appearances in many instances. While to some it sounds very basic (“Oh, well, we’re doing that already”), if you live side by side with folks who’ve got to go to court eight times or something — or, if you’re like me, had your door banged on at 5 a.m. for someone to effect a warrant for a loved one for an open-bottle violation — it’s like, What are we doing? Why? Why are you waking me up, my family up, at 5 a.m. for this, given everything else that’s going on in the world? I think it’s good to acknowledge and look at the data. I think the data is encouraging. I’ve heard some folks say, “Oh, this is radical.” It’s like, “Well, no, actually, it’s been done here a bit. We need to do it some more.” It’s being done in other places. And so I look at the data as encouraging … not that we’ve gotten to the end goal. I think we all have to be in a dynamic process of improving these systems.

I don’t know how else to put it: How does one get the NYPD to play ball? Because your office can implement a lot of these changes, but if the NYPD — and we still see this, even though they’re arresting fewer people for these crimes; we’re still seeing the racial disparities — so how do you do that?  

I think that’s one reason to articulate the policy and implement it clearly and discuss it across city agencies and publicly. The district attorney cannot control who was arrested by the police. But one would hope, even if there’s disagreement on a policy level, that one would not be arrested for cases that are not going to go forward. So that’s a conversation that I hope to have with the incoming leadership of the city. I view the DA’s office as kind of one of the board of directors for the city. We’re going to have a large turnover — the City Council, obviously, a new mayor, I presume a new police commissioner — and this is a discussion that we need to have. What is clear is the district attorney has unfettered discretion who gets charged, and I would think that in a well-functioning system, we’re not going to be arresting people who aren’t going to be charged.

And so the Trump investigation. Unless it stops abruptly, your office is going to still be handling this. What are your ideas in terms of continuity with this investigation? 

I think that’s an important question. My strong default on long-term, complex investigations is to keep the continuity, keep teams intact that have been working on complex long-term investigations. Some of that speaks upon knowing some of the people on the team by reputation. A lot of it’s based upon my prior experience of joining complex matters … so I’ve got a lot of experience kind of getting up to speed on complex investigations, particularly white-collar investigations.

And then also overseeing — becoming a manager in the middle. Particularly in complex matters, there’s a history and understanding of the evidence that you want to retain, as a general matter, so I don’t see any reason why that would be different here. Frankly, given the length of this investigation, the nature of it, my default is even stronger, but you want to keep this team intact.

When you take office, you don’t plan any major shake-ups of the team? 

No. My default is to keep the team intact. Some of the best advice I got as a very junior lawyer was, “Whenever you get a new matter, don’t learn it piecemeal — learn it.” So obviously, there’ll be a lot of matters I need to get up to speed on and will be doing that. We’re talking about this specific charged case. We don’t know what exactly the posture of this overall investigation will be in January. It could be multiple cases by that time; on the other extreme, this case could be resolved. I don’t think this case will be resolved by January, so we’ll kind of see where we are.

One thing that I wanted to ask you about were your plans on revamping the sex-crimes unit, if you could give me a general overview. 

One thing that I think — we’ll continue to do this; it’s been so important — is listening, particularly listening to survivors talk about their experiences. We will be continuing, over the next six months, talking to people who have interacted with the office, talking with people from different offices, and really having a focus on the trauma survivors being central, from a staffing-and-onboarding principle to things like process, where people are interviewed, how they’re interviewed. So really getting in the nuts and bolts of something as specific as a survivor telling me, “I was sitting on the couch next to other people to be interviewed, and that frenetic environment was not good for me.” So really looking at the nuts and bolts, because it’s not just the macro.

So would you disband the current sex-crimes unit and then rebuild one from the ground up?

That’s not to say that no one in the unit won’t be in the next unit, but it means really taking a holistic view: process, staffing. You know, I think we need a holistic review and undertaking. I’ve talked with folks who’ve left the office. I think it’s necessary, and I think it’s one thing to get leadership turnovers and a fresh eye, but I’ve also talked to people who have been like, “This is a good thing. Let’s have a complete view.” I know the policy papers, the first-day-memo talks about disbanding, and kind of forming a new unit. But that’s a process, right? [Editor’s note: Bragg’s “day-one memo” on his campaign website said the current sex-crimes unit would be dissolved.] And that means we have to wait until we’re in office to talk to the folks.

Would you add more staff and resources?

I don’t know that the overall number is what needs to change. I think what needs to — my focus is the process. And I think that includes who’s in the unit. I think that includes leadership. We’ll have the new leadership team. I think it includes voices like Marissa Hoechstetter, who’s been a key voice and adviser on my campaign, including them in the governing of what that looks like. We’re going to be looking at the office structurally … I’m talking about this shift from kind of reactive prosecutions … to more long-term investigations.That’s another kind of macro one, but I’m going to be talking to every person in the unit, doing sort of the audit of cases and seeing where we are and really taking what we’ve learned from survivors and actualizing the reform.

Some violent crimes in New York City have gone up in the past year — let’s compare it to 2019, because in 2020, nobody was outside. How do you feel your office can address this uptick in crimes?

There was a man — I got a call this morning from a friend a block away from where we’re sitting right now — he was shot at last night. I am particularly concerned by the guns. He was not the person they were intending to shoot it, but he was between a group that was being shot at … To me, that is the most significant — the gun use and discharges — (1) because they are in themselves serious, and (2) because they drive public concern more so, reports have shown, than other crime. They focus the attention to make us think more about public safety. To me, that’s a top concern, at the top of the list — and I’ve talked about how we’re going to do that. Some of that is the medium-term approaches of getting the guns off the street, not letting them hit the streets here. Some of that is our community interrupters — peer [anti-]violence folks helping out. Some is going to be prosecutions using restorative-justice processes. Some is going to be traditional prosecutions. Someone shooting at someone is obviously very serious. I’ve had that experience myself.

So we’re going to use sort of — I would call it almost an “all of the above” approach. Something that has come up on the campaign trail [was] like, “Oh, well, you said you weren’t gonna do — you don’t take gun possession seriously.” And I never said that. What I said is that we have to think about cases [based on the facts]. I gave the example of my brother being prosecuted for gun possession for a gun that he neither knew was there nor touched, because his friend who was with him had the gun. So I think we’ve got to be smart and always ask the question, “Does this affect our public safety?” But obviously, someone being shot at, it does. Obviously, some significant portion of gun possessions do.

You’re Manhattan’s first Black district attorney. Do you feel a heightened sense of pressure? Like, if you were not the first Black prosecutor in Manhattan, if you were not the first new prosecutor in 40 years, would you feel a little bit less pressure? How do you think those two historical things come to mind and perhaps impact how you view things?

I said something like this on primary night: This work is a profound responsibility. And when I say “this work,” I mean broadly construed — not [just] being the district attorney [but] being the assistant district attorney the first day on the job, the paralegal. This is the most profound government power: to constrain liberty. It’s got to be used judiciously. And so I think whoever’s in this office, every single day, that sense of responsibility comes from the position. It’s got to be what you’re thinking about when you wake up and think about when you’re going to sleep. And I felt that as a line assistant, I felt that in leadership, so that, I think, is just a hallmark of doing the job appropriately.

I think change is good, and so I think having new voices, new ideas, is helpful. I think I view this as an opportunity sort of more broadly for our city, with the turnover we’re having. And then to the historical moment, I think, for me, what has been interesting really just this last week and, frankly, on this very block … the sense of collective effort and results from people and in this community. You put it in terms of race, and that’s certainly a fact, but I think we haven’t had someone who’s lived, to my knowledge, under 110th Street. I think having a DA who’s been stopped, having a DA who’s had the warrant squad at his door, having a DA who’s been shot at, I feel that from folks: sort of a sense that is important.

I think it is in terms of the way that affects the work, and addresses the work, and contextualizes the work. I think it’s something that is important and also affects how we staff the office, with people who’ve been affected by reentry, people who’ve been affected by sex crimes, who have been affected by stop and frisk. It’s gonna affect how we do business.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Alvin Bragg Has Plans for Vance’s Troubled Sex-Crimes Unit