the city politic

The Trials of Alvin Bragg

The Manhattan DA was meant to reform New York’s justice system and bring down Trump. So far, both prospects look shaky.

Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP/Shutterstock
Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP/Shutterstock

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On January 28, the pews of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were crowded with police officers, hundreds of them, while thousands more lined Fifth Avenue outside the church. They were there for the funeral of Detective Jason Rivera, who had been killed along with his partner, Wilbert Mora, while responding to a domestic-disturbance call at an apartment in Harlem a week earlier. During her eulogy, Rivera’s widow, Dominique Luzuriaga, paused frequently to fight back tears.

Luzuriaga spoke of her grief over losing her “big spoon,” recalling how he would always give her three kisses after driving her home. And then she turned her attention to another man. “The system continues to fail us,” she said. “We are not safe anymore, not even the members of the service. I know you were tired of these laws, especially the ones from the new DA. I hope he’s watching you speak through me right now.” She stopped and looked up at the dozens of rows of officers in front of her.

The crowd began to applaud: a smattering at first, but then the entire congregation rose to its feet. Outside, as snow fell on the thousands huddled in the cold, they too began to cheer for Luzuriaga — and against the newly installed Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. At that point, Bragg had been on the job for just four weeks.

In fact, the district attorney was watching her speak: He was there that day amid the applauding officers in the church. “She asked me to listen. I was sitting there and listening, and I still have her words in my mind,” he said when I interviewed him in his office a few weeks later.

Asked about the difficulty of that moment for him, Bragg replied, “Nothing more difficult than what she has experienced.”

Before Bragg took office in January, there had been only three elected Manhattan district attorneys in the last 80 years. It’s an office that, by virtue of its jurisdiction — encompassing a borough of more than 1.6 million people, including the most important financial institutions in the world — plays an outsize role in the nation’s justice system. It also has a history of high-profile leaders: Robert Morgenthau, who was district attorney from 1975 to 2009, prosecuted John Gotti, former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, and the Central Park jogger case. His successor, Cy Vance, won a conviction against Harvey Weinstein and ended his tenure in the midst of a criminal inquiry into the business practices of former president Donald Trump.

Bragg was sworn in on January 1. He came into the job endorsed by Establishment law-enforcement and political figures like former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Representative Jerrold Nadler, and former congressman Charles Rangel. At the same time, Bragg was championed by several criminal-justice-reform advocates who saw in him the promise of progressive district attorneys who have taken office around the country in recent years. During his campaign, Bragg had pledged to support diversion programs rather than prosecute a long list of lower-level crimes. He spoke often of his personal experiences growing up in Harlem in the 1980s: confronting both gun violence and biased policing. He called the impact of petty-offense prosecutions on Black and brown communities “morally indefensible.” He was the only Black candidate in the race.

In a memo dated two days after he took office, Bragg made good on his promise to pivot away from prosecuting minor offenses. He instructed the assistant district attorneys to stop charging a variety of low-level crimes and to avoid seeking jail time for certain robberies, assaults, and gun-possession cases in which no other crimes were committed. Seeking jail or prison sentences, he wrote, should be reserved only for the most serious offenses — including murder and sexual assault.

“In my adult life, I have posted bail for family, answered the knock of the warrant squad on my door in the early morning, and watched the challenges of a loved one who was living with me after returning from incarceration,” he wrote. “Late last year, during a stretch of multiple shootings within three blocks of my home, I had perhaps the most sobering experience of my life: seeing — through the eyes of my children — the aftermath of a shooting directly in front of our home as we walked together past yellow crime-scene tape, seemingly countless shell casings, and a gun just to get home.”

Bragg’s policy changes were aggressive, but they weren’t wildly revolutionary. Across the country, progressive local prosecutors like Chicago’s Kim Foxx, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin have de-emphasized misdemeanor prosecutions and looked for alternatives to incarceration, although they have often faced resistance. Even in New York City, Bragg’s policies had important precedent. Vance stopped prosecuting marijuana possession, prostitution, and fare evasion. And the Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, offers a diversion program for first-time offenders caught with guns that lets them avoid jail and, instead, receive the assistance of a social worker.

But it was Bragg’s “Day One” memo, as it became known, that sparked an immediate firestorm.

“HAPPY 2022, CRIMINALS!” proclaimed the cover of the New York Post. “Armed robbers, drug dealers and burglars, rejoice! You have a friend in new Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg.”

The city’s newly installed police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, wrote in a letter to tens of thousands of members of the department that she was “very concerned about the implications to your safety as police officers, the safety of the public, and justice for the victims.” A major concern, she indicated, was Bragg’s instruction that his prosecutors decline to charge anyone solely with resisting arrest; that charge, he said, should be prosecuted only alongside another, more serious crime.

The police unions, predictably, bashed Bragg, saying he was endangering their members and that his policies would usher in a crime-ridden return to “the old days,” as one union official put it. The Detectives’ Endowment Association asked Governor Kathy Hochul to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee Bragg’s cases.

Hochul, in turn, took the unusual step of meeting one-on-one with Bragg and telling the Post editorial board beforehand that she wasn’t weighing removing him from office — a comment that only served to highlight the fact that she could. (Hochul’s reaction was surely influenced by an ad run by one of her Democratic primary challengers, Tom Suozzi, in which he said that he would oust Bragg after taking office.)

Bragg also faced internal dissent. It wasn’t so much the policies themselves that proved objectionable, although some prosecutors expressed confusion about whether the new protocol would be retroactive. Rather, according to people close to the office, it was in part Bragg’s rhetorical approach that rankled the longtime assistant district attorneys, who viewed the infusion of Bragg’s personal history into a policy document as far too political for their sensibilities.

“If you give your stump speech, it’s not going to go over well internally,” a former assistant district attorney said. “The legal staff is very pure in their perception of their motivations and their mission, and any hint that it is guided by political motivations is deeply unpopular within the office.”

Joan Vollero, who was a senior communications adviser in the office until last summer, said the memo blindsided some members of staff. “I think there is some genuine excitement and enthusiasm for Alvin Bragg being the new DA, and I think that people want to be co-conspirators in his vision,” she said. But “they want to be brought into the fold — rather than dictated to from on high.”

While the memo was causing an uproar, Bragg faced a second crisis. The two prosecutors leading the Trump investigation, Carey Dunne and Mark Pomerantz, had been urging Bragg to indict the former president before the grand jury’s term expired, according to a person familiar with the matter. When Bragg disputed the strength of the evidence, Dunne and Pomerantz, widely admired figures in the world of white-collar prosecutions, resigned. This time, Bragg faced questions about his judgment not just from conservative circles but from a broad field of observers, many of whom were furious that one of the most serious potential legal threats to the former president had apparently been torpedoed. In his resignation letter, Pomerantz called Bragg’s decision “misguided and completely contrary to the public interest.”

Bragg has released a statement claiming that his prosecutors are still “exploring evidence not previously explored,” but according to a person briefed on the matter, the case against Trump is effectively on hold. When I asked Bragg about the future of the probe, he insisted that the investigation was ongoing. “We have a team of extraordinary prosecutors working every day. As you know and can appreciate, we’re just constrained from being able to talk about what we’re doing. The last thing I want to do is impair any investigation — including this one.”

Bragg had come into office with big expectations placed on him: He was the reformer who was going to end the worst imbalances of the city’s criminal-justice system. He was also, some hoped, the guy who was finally going to criminally charge Trump, bringing a conclusion to an investigation that had stretched years and reached the Supreme Court twice. Within two months, both narratives had all but collapsed — and Bragg was left fighting to ensure that his term as district attorney wasn’t doomed so soon after it began.

Bragg is by no means a newcomer to New York law enforcement, but he has virtually no prior experience with the gauntlet of New York City politics or media. He’s genial and unimposing with a round face and a salt-and-pepper goatee. A Harvard Crimson profile of him written when he was a senior, in 1995, noted that his friends called him Big Papa. He continues to teach Sunday school at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which he has attended since childhood.

Bragg’s résumé has the hallmarks of most elite, accomplished lawyers — private school (Trinity) followed by Harvard undergraduate and law schools. Alongside the diplomas in his office hangs an award for winning a law-school competition judged by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York and as chief deputy attorney general of New York, where he supervised the lawsuit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which ended with Trump ordered to pay a $2 million settlement.

Bragg’s background, however, differs from many of his peers in some distinct ways. As he recounted frequently on the campaign trail, he had a gun pulled on him six times while growing up — three of those times by NYPD officers. During the pandemic, his young son told him he was worried about wearing a face mask because he didn’t want to be mistaken for a robber. When Bragg worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office, he was one of fewer than ten Black prosecutors in an office of roughly 200.

These days, Bragg seems weary but optimistic after the first few “bumpy” weeks, as he describes them. “I was surprised by the intensity and prolonged nature of the reaction” to the rollout of his policies, he said.

It didn’t help that the memo came out just before a surge in high-profile public-safety incidents. In mid-January, a man shoved a woman onto the subway tracks as a train pulled into the Times Square station, killing her. Days later in East Harlem, a man fatally shot a 19-year-old cashier during a botched robbery at a Burger King. On January 19, an 11-month-old girl was shot in the face by a stray bullet in the Bronx. Then, of course, there were the deaths of Rivera and Mora.

Bragg suffered from the contrast with Mayor Eric Adams, a former cop. While Bragg was talking about sending young offenders to diversion programs, Adams advocated a crackdown on low-level crime and encouraged police to once again enforce quality-of-life crimes like graffiti. Adams, unlike Bragg, is a longtime politician who is particularly skilled at optics and messaging.

And so rather than the mayor bearing the brunt of public concerns about safety in his first few weeks, it was Bragg who was made the bogeyman.

“When Black mayors come to power, they’re always accused of being soft on crime. But Eric Adams isn’t like most Black mayors,” said Christina Greer, a political-science professor at Fordham University. “He’s not a lawyer; he’s a blue-collar police officer. You can’t use Eric Adams as your proxy for ‘soft on crime.’ So it falls to Bragg.”

Bragg acknowledges that the tumult of the first few weeks has shaped the way he works with Adams. “We’re kind of forging governing relationships in the middle of this, which, you know, I don’t think that’s how anyone would have necessarily thought the year would have started.”

After Sewell, Adams’s police commissioner, wrote her letter attacking the “Day One” memo, Bragg’s internal and external advisers debated how to handle the fallout. Some advocated for a complete repeal of the memo, suggesting Bragg say he should have sought input from others before altering the office’s policies. Others argued that doing so would send a message to the police, to the public, and, yes, to the New York Post that Bragg was a pushover.

The strategy they settled on split the difference. In a series of public appearances, Bragg apologized for “confusion” created by the memo. The document, he said, “left many New Yorkers justifiably concerned for how we will keep them safe.”

“I’ve got a lot to learn about comms and messaging,” Bragg said. “Lesson learned.”

He appointed a new prosecutor devoted to gun violence, Peter Pope, a veteran of both the district attorney’s office and the attorney general’s office, who is regarded by colleagues as extremely aggressive in his approach to investigations and prosecutions.

But the criticism didn’t abate, and law-enforcement officials were confused: Did Bragg’s verbal statements override the contents of the written memo? And so on February 4, Bragg issued a second memo.

In it, he wrote that the default in gun-possession cases would be felony prosecutions; his first memo didn’t identify such cases as among those for which his office would seek incarceration. He said commercial robberies would be charged as felonies if they involved the use of guns or fake guns — revising his previous statement that robberies would be charged as felonies only if there was a “genuine risk of physical harm.” And with regard to resisting arrest, he said his office will prosecute anyone who harms or attempts to harm a police officer. (It was still not clear from the second memo, however, whether the office would prosecute stand-alone cases of resisting arrest. A spokesperson for the office said it will apply the charge “if there is harm or an attempt to harm a police officer — including as a stand-alone charge in certain extraordinary and/or aggravating circumstances.”)

Those who supported Bragg’s candidacy and advocate for criminal-justice reform were dismayed by his move. “What kind of message is now being delivered to the line prosecutors and to New Yorkers?” Udi Ofer, the deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said to the New York Times. “It’s giving in to the tough-on-crime narrative that has brought us this mass incarceration crisis in the first place.”

At the same time, many of Bragg’s initial detractors, including cops, still weren’t satisfied. “The criminal element heard his first message loud and clear,” said Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association. “They don’t care about his second memo. The tone is being set on the streets by his new policies. And time will tell.”

If Bragg has been shaken by the past three months of controversy, he doesn’t show it. In his telling, the second memo, rather a bit of frantic cleanup, was a chance to share his criminal-justice philosophy with his constituents. “Not to be too much glass-half-full, but it gave me an opportunity to, in my own words, explain to people what the vision is and talk about how to accomplish that and how safety and fairness are not oppositional,” Bragg said. “They are, I think, indispensable to each other — inextricably interwoven. My life sort of illustrates that — having had public-safety challenges and police-fairness challenges growing up. And in my career, I’ve sort of been at the intersection of a career in prosecution but also kind of focused on these fairness issues.”

His biggest difficulty now will be to get Sewell and the police department back on his side. “Philosophically and strategically, there are two broad camps among many on how to move the needle on public safety,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, a criminal-justice research center. “One is, you can’t work with law enforcement. There’s no negotiating with them. The other is that you have to work with law enforcement to get a lot of stuff done.”

There are reasons to hope that the relationship can be repaired. Several of Bragg’s former colleagues from when he was a prosecutor pointed to his ability to earn the respect of the federal agents working his cases, a group that can skew more blue collar than the largely Ivy League prosecutors of the Southern District. “Sometimes agents feel like prosecutors couldn’t relate to their objectives or the communities they were trying to protect,” said Randall Jackson, who worked with Bragg in the U.S. Attorney’s office. “What agents loved about Alvin was he was an elite prosecutor who’s supersmart, but he’s a regular guy from Harlem.” Bragg has a rarefied pedigree, Jackson said, but he’s “an extraordinarily straightforward person” and “relatable to almost anyone.”

Carrie Cohen, who oversaw Bragg when he was a young prosecutor in the public-integrity unit of the attorney general’s office, described him as “easy to supervise, because he was eager to learn and not defensive at all, so he accepted criticism extremely well and also was able to integrate all of the feedback into improving himself.”

Cohen recalled supervising one of the first depositions Bragg ever took, in a corruption case in Buffalo, where she said he learned in the moment how to craft more incisive questions while dealing with the barrage of sticky notes she passed to him during the process. “He has a very non-egotistical, very warm and friendly demeanor,” she said.

When Bragg and another prosecutor, Peter Skinner, tried a money-laundering case at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Skinner left court one day to find more than a dozen messages waiting on his cell phone. It was his wife telling him that their roof had fallen in and rain was pouring through the ceiling while she was home with their two small children (the judge didn’t allow anyone, attorneys included, to have phones in the courtroom).

Later that day, Skinner was set to handle what’s known as a charge conference — a crucial discussion before the judge in which the parties discuss how the jury will be instructed to determine whether the defendant actually broke the law. “I get off the phone and everybody’s looking at me, and Alvin was just like, ‘Dude, you’ve gotta get home. Just go. I will cover the charge conference alone. Just go. We’ll deal with it,’” Skinner recalled.

“It was no small thing,” Skinner said. “It was a complicated charge. It was all these counts; it was interlocking conspiracies. He wasn’t afraid to just do it. He’s a supersmart, super-capable guy, so he was able to do it and do it well.” The defendant in the case was convicted and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

“I think the world of Alvin,” Skinner said. “You couldn’t pick a better trial partner.”

People who have worked with Bragg pointed to his intellectual curiosity and openness. Toward the end of his time in the attorney general’s office, he was appointed special prosecutor for police-involved deaths. For each case, he and his team would have sessions, sometimes hours long, in which they would debate whether the person under investigation should be prosecuted. In one instance, everyone, Bragg included, came to the conclusion at the end of a session that the case shouldn’t be charged.

But a summer intern in the office had a legal theory in favor of prosecution, and she proposed it to her supervisor, who had her write a memo about it and passed it to Bragg. Bragg ended up agreeing with her and recommending prosecution to the attorney general.

In the DAs office, Bragg has been meeting in recent weeks with prosecutors in groups of 20 and seeking feedback — after having told the Times in an interview before taking office that he wouldn’t tolerate internal “recalcitrance” by those who disagreed with his policies.

For prosecutors in the office, witnessing the chaos created by a “full-on hate fest” of the new DA and his policies wasn’t easy, as one of the unit chiefs put it. “It was a stressful time for people, because they didn’t know what it meant and they didn’t know how to interpret what was going on,” he said, adding that people were “nervous.”

On January 20, Bragg called a meeting of the entire office on Zoom. “He said, ‘It is on me, these miscues,’ and he basically acknowledged and took the hit for that,” the unit chief recalled. “And I will tell you, people could not believe that a DA would ever say that to them,” he said. “People felt he was acknowledging there were some fuck ups, but, when the dust settled, he was committed to these reform principles and he had the staff back.”

Most politicians I know would go through a couple of weeks like this and immediately commission polling,” said Eric Soufer, a political consultant who once worked with Bragg in the attorney general’s office. “I’m sure that hasn’t even crossed Alvin’s mind,” he said. “I think that’s really refreshing. It also means that, once in a while, he’s going to do things differently, and I think that’s a credit to his character — but it’s also an opportunity for his opponents to seize on it, because they know he’s not going to immediately go out and do some sort of stunt that puts them on their heels.”

Bragg’s lack of experience in handling the press contributes to this problem. When he was special prosecutor for police-involved deaths at the attorney general’s office, he got some media training: Democratic strategist and former White House communications director Anita Dunn prepped him for an appearance on MSNBC. During an early press conference, one colleague was tasked with reminding Bragg to wear collar stays.

“At the time, I thought that was intense scrutiny,” he said of the role. “I think this is now intense scrutiny.”

The outlet that has given him the most trouble is, of course, the Post, and he bristles when I mention it. He avoided citing the tabloid by name but referenced it by describing a cover that featured photos of three Black officials, himself included, used to illustrate a story about how an institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice “teaches DAs to ‘free’ criminals,” while white people associated with the program, including Vance, were depicted only on the newspaper’s inside pages.

I asked if he thinks he has been treated unfairly by the Post. “I certainly cannot speak for the motivations or editorial selections of any paper, certainly not that paper,” he said, but he’s “not oblivious.”

By late March, Bragg seemed resigned to the criticism, which showed no signs of slowing. In a phone conversation, he said he was concentrating on a handful of other priorities — amping up the office’s hate-crimes unit, which is handling more cases now than at any time since its creation; hiring new leadership for the sex crimes division; and devoting more resources to tenant-harassment cases, which Bragg believes will escalate in the wake of the expiration of the state’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium.

Bragg also mentioned a personal “long-term career interest”: the use of white-collar investigations and techniques to impact street crime — in other words, taking a case involving guns or drugs and finding a way to turn off what Bragg calls “the money spigot” when bringing a charge involving the guns or drugs themselves proves difficult.

He continues to believe that his policies will promote both racial equity and public safety. “The reality that we don’t talk about enough is that your witness today is your victim tomorrow is your defendant on Friday, and I’ve sat in a room with people who are disinclined to cooperate on a very serious matter because of the experiences they’ve had with the system in the past. To me, that’s all bound up in issues of race, issues of equity, issues of fairness — they all feed into safety issues.”

“Even as others around us were focused on other things,” Bragg said, that’s where his attention has landed. “I think, ultimately, the public narrative is to be told through the work, and the body of work will speak for itself. It’s too important to be distracted.”

The Trials of Alvin Bragg