The newly elected Queens District Attorney is promising a big shakeup when she takes office on January 1.
Melinda Katz told WNYC's Brian Lehrer on Monday she'll replace most of the current executive staff to ensure they support her more progressive policies. She suggested one of the eight top staffers might stay but said the rest will be gone.
“As we change what we do in this office, it's important to have true believers because there are 700 people that work in that office,” she explained. “I can't be standing next to each one of them every single day.”
Katz is replacing former District Attorney Richard Brown, who died in May after declining to seek another term. Unlike the district attorneys in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn—who had lightened up on prosecuting fare beaters and people caught with weed—Queens took a tougher approach to these offenses under Brown. Most of the Democrats campaigning to replace him this year said they would take a more progressive approach, if elected. Katz then narrowly defeated public defender Tiffany Caban in the primary.
Starting January 1st, Katz told Lehrer she'll end the Queens DA's unique policy of pressuring defendants to waive their right to a grand jury in less than a week, in order to get more favorable plea agreements. Defense attorneys have criticized this stance because prosecutors would stick with the top charges once there’d been a grand jury indictment, and not engage in plea bargaining.
“There’s going to be a new day in Queens County for defendants,” she said.
The Queens DA’s unique “no plea” policy would have been harder to maintain because the state's new criminal justice laws require prosecutors to turn over evidence more quickly to defendants, within 15 days of arraignment.
The incoming DA sounded much more supportive of the new bail laws than the acting Queens DA Jack Ryan. She said she was working with judges, the criminal defense bar and prosecutors to ensure they follow the new laws, which eliminate bail for most defendants except for those charged with violent crimes. “It's going to come together because it's the right thing to do,” she said, adding that she will support diversion programs with community groups to make sure fewer people get arrested in the first place.
She also signaled in some instances that she would go further on certain police accountability issues than she did on the campaign trail.
In April, Gothamist/WNYC broke news that the Queens DA had created a secret internal database, tracking officers flagged for potential honesty issues. At the time, Katz told the Queens Daily Eagle that she was against releasing those officers’ names to the public “without clear and consistent standards” for how officers got in the database.
However, following a Freedom of Information Law appeal from Gothamist/WNYC, the Queens DA released a list in November, naming 65 officers whose honesty had been called into question by judges. Katz told Lehrer Monday she supported that release, and announced that her new conviction integrity unit would review past cases involving officers in the Queens DA’s internal database. She also said officers would have clear standards for how they get flagged, and promised to continue releasing the names.
“I do think it’s a good idea to let those lists out,” she said, referring to the database. As DA, she continued, she needs to be able to rely on officers to make cases with integrity. “So as we’re prosecuting, and as we’re taking cases through the system, it’s important that there is faith in the law enforcement officials that are part of the evidence.”
Tim Rountree, Attorney-In-Charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Queens Trial Office, praised Katz’s announcements.
“We applaud Melinda Katz for stepping into the Queens DA office with a robust plan to finally bring equal justice to the people of the borough,” he said in a statement. “By eliminating the 180.80 waiver policy, establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit, and bringing in new staff who share her progressive vision, Katz seems to be signaling that she is ready to implement much-needed change to the Queens DA office.”
The New York Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on Katz’s decision to release the names of officers with credibility issues. In the past, the NYPD has said these findings are based on the subjective decisions of judges.
In a statement, the NYPD noted that it has been soliciting judges’ adverse credibility findings from prosecutors since 2014, and used them to consider possible training, reassignment or investigation. The department said it does not consider every such finding to be accurate, noting, "Often, these findings are the result of insufficient preparation for testimony of the officer or the judge substituting [their] perception of the facts for the officer’s firsthand knowledge." Further, the NYPD said there is “no mechanism to appeal a finding of adverse credibility against one of our officers.”
Katz hinted more changes are coming in 2020. She said she would replace bureau chiefs and deputy bureau chiefs in some instances, to change the culture of the office. “I’m also going to announce that within 100 days, we are going to do another shakeup.”
George Joseph is an investigative reporter at WNYC. If you have a tip, or if you work or have worked in a prosecutor's office, a law enforcement agency or the courts, email Joseph at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal, or otherwise, at 929-486-4865.
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from the NYPD.