Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Cycle of Mistrust Leaves Crimes Unprosecuted in the Bronx
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
This is part two of a two-part series.
Walk around Forest Houses, a public housing complex in the South Bronx, and people will say they’ve been stabbed, robbed, beat up — even shot. But most never wanted to get police involved, and many say they wouldn’t go to prosecutors either — even if their attackers were arrested.
They say they fear retaliation.
“If I knew the dude that did it, I wouldn’t tell on him,” said James Johnson, a 17-year-old who lives in Forest Houses, “because that’s how people come looking for you. It’s the truth. I’m telling you.”
Around here, residents say they don’t trust law enforcement to protect them because criminals keep coming back to the neighborhood, even after they’ve been locked up.
“They can start all over again harassing you, and you’re not getting relocated. You’re gonna still be in your hood, dealing with the problem again,” said Melissa White, 30, another resident of Forest Houses. “At the end of the day, this is why people don’t want to talk. Because they have nowhere to go.”
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office declines to prosecute alleged criminals more often than any other prosecutors’ office in the city. One main reason is a policy unique to the Bronx: if a victim doesn’t cooperate with prosecutors within 24 hours after an arrest, the office will almost always drop the case.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson declined a request for an interview by WNYC. But representatives from his office say the policy helps build stronger cases.
But that policy may be causing prosecutors to give up on cases too soon in the Bronx, a community where immediate cooperation is hard to come by because so many people don’t trust law enforcement. Some veteran police officers say, moreover, that it effectively substitutes the individual victim’s judgment for the community’s – though it’s the community’s interest that law enforcement is supposed to serve. And Bronx residents say the breakdown in relations between the public and the authorities prompts at least some crime victims to take justice into their own hands.
(Photo: Bronx Criminal Court Stephen Nessen/WNYC)
The Highest Decline-to-Prosecute Rate for 13 of the Last 16 Years
At Bronx Criminal Court on a recent morning, a stream of individuals arrested for crimes in the Bronx assemble outside a small blue window with chipped paint to check on the status of the cases against them.
Within two hours, more than a dozen people received slips of paper, notifying them that the Bronx District Attorney’s Office had declined to prosecute the cases against them. These individuals represent a small sample of the more than 18,000 cases Bronx prosecutors declined last year.
Over and over during that morning, court officers repeated the line: “Your case got dropped.”
“This is the letter saying it got dropped,” one officer said to a young woman, “So you’re done. Okay?”
“Okay, thank you! Yeah!” the woman cheered. She didn’t wish to be identified, but she told WNYC she had been arrested for assault after beating up a co-worker.
Data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services shows the largest category of cases dropped by the Bronx DA last year was assault cases – crimes involving victims. By comparison, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the most commonly declined cases were drug possession arrests.
The Bronx DA's office staunchly defends its policy of requiring prosecutors to drop a case if a victim isn’t interviewed right away. Officials in the office say that guideline only strengthens the cases that do go forward and therefore, judges dismiss fewer of their cases later on.
But data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that’s just not true. Even among the criminal cases that do proceed, the Bronx still had the second highest dismissal rate among the five boroughs in 2011.
What the numbers suggest is that more alleged crimes go unprosecuted in the Bronx largely because the DA requires victims to show up and talk right away.
But critics say the Bronx is a place where police and prosecutors need days, or weeks, to get people to cooperate because in this community, the first instinct is not to talk.
(Photo: Critics of the Bronx DA's office say a policy expecting a victim to talk right away is unrealistic in a community where people often don't want to cooperate. Stephen Nessen/WNYC)
A Community Prone Not To Cooperate
WNYC searched for Bronx residents who say they were assaulted but who chose not to cooperate with law enforcement. Prosecutors dropped their cases within hours after their alleged attackers were arrested because these victims wouldn’t talk. We obtained a few of their names and addresses. Some people we tried had moved. One person did open the door, but refused to talk on the record. Most people just didn’t answer.
“Oh, ain’t nobody talking. Ain’t none of that going down. Ain’t nobody talking,” said Derek Roberts, who has lived here in Forest Houses, nearly all of his 29 years.
The demographics of his block reflect most of the borough. The Bronx is 90 percent black and Latino, has a huge immigrant population and contains the poorest Congressional district in the country.
Criminal justice experts say this mix of factors makes it especially tough to persuade victims in the Bronx to cooperate with police and prosecutors. There is a deep distrust of law enforcement, they say, and often there are language barriers too.
Roberts said he doesn’t have a single friend who would ever press charges if he were a victim of a crime. Because around here, he said, there’s “the code of the street.”
“The motto in the hood is, ‘Keep your head down and your nose clean, and you’d be all right,’” said Roberts. “Mind my own business. It’s safer. Being a busy body and get up all in the middle of things will get you hurt in the neighborhood.”
Police officers in the Bronx tell WNYC it’s these attitudes that make crime-fighting especially hard in this borough. But they argue the Bronx DA makes a bad situation even worse – by expecting victims to talk within a day after an arrest. Cops say it is an unrealistic policy that leads to too many cases getting tossed out too quickly.
But Odalys Alonso, the Chief Assistant DA in the Bronx, disagrees.
“We don’t see it that way,” said Alonso. “We are not penalizing any victim. We are telling the victims that they have that choice. Okay? And they also have the choice to come back.”
But critics say many victims never come back. When a prosecutor declines a case, the arrest is expunged from the official record. If the victim changes her mind and decides to cooperate later, she would need to make a fresh complaint with the police, and they’d need to find the defendant and arrest him one more time.
Law enforcement experts say when you let a case hinge on whether a victim wants to immediately cooperate, it puts too much control in a victim’s hands – and, after all, prosecutors represent the state, not the victim.
“There are, for example, situations where the victim does not want to prosecute, where you actually have to play hardball and get them to come in because the person you’re prosecuting represents a danger to other people that are not involved,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former cop and prosecutor.
Cops say playing hardball with a victim can take a lot longer than a day. And even when a victim decides to cooperate, police officers say the DA doesn’t always make it easy.
Mike Connolly was a detective in the Bronx for 10 years and remembers personally escorting crime victims to the prosecutors’ office to be interviewed. To coax them to stay, he’d ply them with free coffee and sandwiches. And even then, there were times the victim would have to wait hours for the prosecutors.
"Sometimes they would be so busy – after waiting four or five hours – ‘You have to come back tomorrow. We’re closing,’” said Connelly. “And you look at them, and you’re like, ‘I’ve been here five hours with this gentleman.’ Guy’s just like, ‘I’m not coming back anymore. I can’t afford to take off from work. I can’t afford to leave my business. I don’t have money for a babysitter for my kid. I can’t come back.’”
And once that victim walks out that first day, the case will be declined.
Defense lawyers say a high decline-to-prosecute rate does not necessarily mean a District Attorney is doing an ineffective job. Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders said perhaps all the District Attorneys in the city need to consider dropping more cases.
“We see literally hundreds of clients come into the system every week with cases that are really weak on their face that I don't think could be proved,” Steinberg said. “And I think there could be even more strenuous vetting by the prosecutors' office even up here."
But law enforcement experts say the Bronx DA’s policy toward crime victims isn’t evidence of solid vetting -- it’s a policy that gives up on victims too quickly.
Fighting Crime With More Crime
Though the Bronx has had the highest decline-to-prosecute rate for 13 of the last 16 years, state records show it has had the lowest jury conviction rate in the city for Johnson’s entire 23-year tenure, except one year.
Last year, the jury conviction rate in the Bronx was 46 percent. The average rate for the rest of the city was 65 percent, according to data from the New York State Unified Court System.
Disillusioned residents in the Bronx said they’ve come up with their own justice system to hold people accountable for crimes.
John Anderson, 42, said he’s been shot three times. If you want to make sure someone in the Bronx doesn’t hurt you again, he said, you fight crime with more crime.
“I’m not going to call the police. I’m going to wait for it to die down, and I’m going to wait until you be slippin,’ and I’m going to catch you on my own,” said Anderson. “I’m going to see you one day, and it’s just going to be me and you. And I’m going to give it to you the way you got to get it.”
Anderson wouldn’t elaborate on what he’s done to retaliate against someone, but another crime victim did. Niecy James lives at Jackson Houses – another project in the South Bronx. WNYC couldn’t confirm her story with the NYPD, but here’s how she tells it: On a snowy night in 1994, she was robbed at gunpoint on the staircase of her building. She didn’t go to the cops. She told her brothers about it instead.
“Sure enough, we found him. We found him. And the cops found us pounding him out,” said James. “We could have likely been in trouble like him. Because we gave him a beating of his life.”
The man survived. And the police brought them all in for questioning. James says the man ended up getting prosecuted, but no one ever prosecuted her or her brothers for what they did.
(Photo: Bronx Criminal Court. Stephen Nessen/WNYC)