When Alvin Bragg was a candidate for Manhattan district attorney, he spoke often about gun possession cases that did not merit harsh prosecution or imprisonment, saying that not every person charged with such a crime was linked to violence.
But on Wednesday, facing a backlash over the lenient policies he put in place upon taking office earlier this month and following a string of high-profile shootings, Mr. Bragg announced the appointment of a new prosecutor dedicated to preventing gun violence — and acknowledged that his emphasis, if not his approach, had changed.
Mr. Bragg said that he had been overly focused during the campaign on what he called “exceptional” cases in which gun possession should not be prosecuted. Since taking office, he said, he realized he needed to be more clear about when traditional prosecution was called for.
“It’s certainly a change in emphasis,” he said in an interview. “It’s certainly not a change in my thinking or in my work.”
Mr. Bragg’s shift comes as New York City grapples with gun violence that rose sharply in the summer of 2020 and has remained elevated since then. There were more than 1,500 shooting incidents in both 2020 and 2021, according to preliminary year-end data released by the New York Police Department — about twice as many as in each of the previous two years.
Those statistics have been underscored by a series of shootings early in the year, including the killing of Officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora as they responded to a 911 call in Harlem on Friday. Other victims have included three additional police officers, a teenager working at a Burger King restaurant and an 11-month-old baby.
In response, Mayor Eric Adams this week unveiled a comprehensive plan to address gun violence, which outlined actions that the city would take and called on other criminal justice entities — including the state court system, the Legislature and district attorneys like Mr. Bragg — to enact new policies to help the crackdown.
On Wednesday, President Biden announced that he would travel to New York City next week for an appearance with Mr. Adams to discuss the White House’s strategy to fight gun crime.
Mr. Bragg’s policies are broadly comparable to those of several other recently elected progressive prosecutors in cities around the country.
But the political moment in New York City, Mr. Adams’s focus on guns and crime — and the barrage of negative attention Mr. Bragg has received from Fox News and other right-wing outlets — have put him at the center of a heated argument about prosecutorial responsibility. The bulk of Mr. Bragg’s professional experience was prosecutorial, not political. His first weeks in office have been a crash course in straddling the two worlds.
Mayor Adams’s call for action coincides with an effort by Mr. Bragg to turn the page on his first weeks on the job: During his first days in office, he released a memo instructing his prosecutors to seek jail or prison time for only the most serious crimes. Gun possession was not mentioned explicitly as one of those serious crimes, meaning that, according to the memo, prosecutors were only to request jail or prison time for possession as a stand-alone charge in “extraordinary circumstances.”
The memo mirrored the proposals that helped Mr. Bragg win the Democratic primary and then the election and was welcomed by some public defender organizations, including the Legal Aid Society. But its release was met with weeks of pushback, and New York’s police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, said she found it deeply troubling.
The controversy marred the opening of Mr. Bragg’s tenure, and over the past two weeks he has embarked on an explanatory tour, stressing that his prosecutors will have discretion in individual cases and that violent crime will be taken seriously. He and Ms. Sewell met and released a joint statement afterward saying that their conversation had been productive.
“If you’re walking around Manhattan with a gun, you’re going to be prosecuted and we’re going to hold you accountable,” he said on Monday.
Then, on Wednesday, Mr. Bragg said that combating gun violence was his top priority and announced the appointment of Peter Pope, a veteran of the district attorney’s office, to a new position overseeing its work on gun crime. The office said that it had already begun prosecuting more than 50 gun possession cases this year, and Mr. Bragg said that such cases would allow his investigators to better combat gun trafficking in Manhattan.
Spokesmen for the Legal Aid Society and the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, organizations that represent criminal defendants in Manhattan, declined to comment on Mr. Bragg’s announcement, or his shift in tone.
Mr. Pope has a long-held interest in preventing gun violence, having overseen a state lawsuit against gun companies while working at the office of the New York State attorney general and serving as a federal monitor in a settlement between New York City and gun shops. In an interview, he said he would focus on two questions: Who is driving Manhattan’s gun crime, and where are their guns coming from?
“There are a small number of violence drivers,” he said. “Focusing on those violence drivers and also then focusing on where it is that they are getting the guns, you have the opportunity to really change what it is that’s going on in the streets.”
Mr. Pope also said the office would attempt to reach people who might be swept up in violence even before they had become the subject of criminal investigations. If successful, Mr. Pope said, such interventions could prevent young people from becoming involved with crime.
While Mr. Bragg’s shift in emphasis highlights how difficult it can be to enact lenient policies while gun crime and concern over public safety rise, it also signals the way in which the new Manhattan district attorney differs from peers who share some of his policies, including Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney, and Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney.
Both those men worked as defense lawyers before taking office. Mr. Bragg, by contrast, is a former federal prosecutor, and he has consistently emphasized the need for public safety. During an appearance with the Citizens Crime Commission on Monday, he amended his usual mantra of “safety and fairness.”
“I’ve almost been thinking about saying, rather than ‘safety and fairness,’ it’s like ‘safety and safety,’” he said, explaining that even the most lenient or reformist of his policies — the “fairness” part of his platform — was geared toward protecting the public.
Remarking on that appearance, James McGuire, a former prosecutor in Manhattan who was chief counsel to Gov. George E. Pataki, a three-term Republican, said, “The district attorney did the backstroke from his first-day memo furiously and effectively.”
And Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, said that while Mr. Bragg had not necessarily reversed himself, he had clearly shifted his priorities.
“He’s not a politician, but I think he’s quickly realized that this is a political job,” she said. “And when the primary conversation in New York is about safety and gun violence, it might appear a bit tone deaf if he’s talking about something else.”
Ms. Greer said that there was a racial component to the way Mr. Bragg, the first Black person to hold the office, had been received.
“Alvin is serving as the proxy for white fears of a city run amok,” she said.
Much of Mr. Bragg’s campaign platform was shaped by his personal experiences and those of his family members. He often spoke about his father, who carried a gun illegally before turning it in at a buyback event, and his brother-in-law, who was charged with gun possession after being arrested with one of his friends who had been holding a gun. Their cases, Mr. Bragg said, demonstrated the point that not all people who held guns were likely to commit violent acts. (This week, Mr. Bragg called their experiences “atypical.”)
That platform allowed Mr. Bragg to attract a broad array of support. And while he said Wednesday that his philosophy would not change, he added that it was inevitable that he would make decisions that would upset at least some of those who had supported his candidacy.
“There are a lot of stakeholders, and I’m going to continue to listen and talk and hear what people are saying, but ultimately I have to do what I did before I was in this office,” he said. “Look at the cases and do what I feel is right.”
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