BY KEEGAN STEPHAN and CHARLES KOMANOFF | Sixties relic or not, speaking truth to power remains critical to democracy. Nowadays, though, elected officials and corporate bosses hide behind gates, goons and guns. Dissenters are shunted into cordons sanitaires. The unfettered, unmediated dialogue necessary for a free society is reduced to dueling slogans and kabuki protests.
The veil lifted, for a few moments anyway, in Lower Manhattan earlier this month, when Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance spoke at New York Law School’s “City Law” breakfast series. The cover of the Oct. 25 New York Review of Books depicts Vance alongside Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly under a headline, “The Problem Of The New York Police.” And indeed, as a member of the triumvirate that dispenses law enforcement and criminal justice in New York County, Vance has much to account for.
The D.A.’s talk at the law school was a dutiful recitation of triumphs, such as smashing Iranian money-laundering rings. Vance left unspoken not only the stop-and-frisk debacle that recently led the Bronx County D.A. to cease prosecuting most stop-and-frisk arrests, but also Vance’s complicity in two other ongoing New York Police Department scandals: the department’s whitewashing of traffic crimes against pedestrians and cyclists, and its intimidation, sometimes brutal, of peaceful dissent. That was left to this column’s co-writers in the Q&A.
Charles Komanoff led off by reminding Vance of the D.A.’s 2009 campaign promise to seize vehicles’ “black boxes” to get data that could assign culpability and assist in diagnosing lethal crashes. Komanoff then brought up the two-car collision last month at 59th St. and Park Ave. that killed a pedestrian, Rubin Baum, and asked Vance if his office had subpoenaed the cars’ black boxes. Vance replied that he didn’t know, and added that procuring black box data is “complicated.”
Complicated? As if global financial shenanigans are simple? Vance’s answer suggests that in his nearly three years as D.A., after a hundred or more traffic fatalities in his New York County jurisdiction, he hasn’t even tried to look under the hood. The Baum case, in which one car T-boned another, launching it onto the sidewalk and into the 80-year-old Korean War veteran and decorated medic, cries out for forensic analysis. By his inaction, Vance, effectively lip-synched the N.Y.P.D. line in most such fatalities: “No criminality suspected.” Subtext: Get over it.
The D.A. also bemoaned the limited resources of his and other prosecutorial staffs, which set the stage for Keegan Stephan’s question. Stephan charged that Vance has been silently complicit in the suppression of peaceful protests through hundreds of unlawful arrests at public demonstrations, such as those organized by Occupy Wall Street. These arrests have cost the D.A.’s office countless hours and money, since each case routinely comes before a judge several times, with diminished charges each time, before being dismissed for lack of evidence.
Stephan asked why the D.A. had not instructed the N.Y.P.D. to stop flooding his office with these dubious cases, especially considering Vance’s argument that his resources are so sparse he cannot investigate deadly traffic crashes.
D.A. Vance admitted that these cases had cost his office valuable time — more than 1,200 O.W.S. cases alone, he stated with an apparent air of insolence toward the protesters rather than the N.Y.P.D. Vance contended that he can only prosecute cases that are brought before him, and that if some cases were rightfully dismissed for insufficient evidence, then his office had done its job. It was not his job, he insisted, to criticize the N.Y.P.D.
Investigating the N.Y.P.D.’s recurring, almost routine arrests of civil demonstrators, and prosecuting the department if those arrests are rooted in policy, would both restore essential civil rights and free up resources to target serious crime.
At the New York Law School forum, the calls to prosecute traffic crime aggressively and to prevent police abuse of protesters came through loud and clear.
We need more forums like this — and more citizens willing to respectfully but vigorously remind officials of their obligation to protect the citizenry from true harm.
Stephan is a member of Time’s Up!, an environmental and cycling organization.
Komanoff is author of the booklet “Killed By Automobile,” and was recently dubbed a “street safety stalwart” by Streetsblog.