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A guide for Queens’ new district attorney

2019-08-17

Lots to do. (Seth Wenig/AP)

It wasn’t quite Dewey Defeats Truman but presumptions (including by me) that the next Queens district attorney would be public defender Tiffany Cabán have been proven wrong. Melinda Katz is definitively the Democratic nominee, tantamount to election in Queens.

That being the case, it is worth setting down some suggestions, respectfully, for her first 100 days in office.

Katz was criticized during the election because she has no courtroom experience, let alone prior experience as an assistant prosecutor. Indeed, her background is not ideal. But unlike Cabán, she has extensive executive and public policy experience, having served both as borough president and a legislator. And perhaps more importantly, she does not seem to share some of Cabán’s more radical predilections, such as both supporting the closing of Rikers Island and opposing a new community detention center in Queens.

So, here are some suggestions for the presumptive DA:

Hire a career prosecutor as the chief assistant DA. Even the New York Times, in surprisingly endorsing Cabán, said she would “need to surround herself with seasoned prosecutors.” That is good advice for Katz as well, and it should start at her right hand, with the professional whose job it will be to act in her stead when she is unavailable, and whom she can trust to guide her decisions as issues arise that are new to her. New York is full of excellent career prosecutors, many of whom are committed to reasonable change in the direction Katz’s voters hope for.

Identify the steady hands in the office; you’ll need them. Thankfully gone are the days when new DAs purged the staff and brought in lawyers from the clubhouse. So we can expect the vast majority of Katz’s staff to remain. Among them are ADAs who can be counted on to keep the ship moving forward in tricky areas like domestic violence, sex crimes, and homicide, so that Katz can understand the office works while planning her changes. She should find and rely on them—the last thing she wants is a disaster or scandal as she is getting revved up.

Remember that the DA is not just a politician but also a minister of justice. As elected officials, DAs of course represent their constituents, but they have the additional duty to see that justice is done, no matter the wishes of the press or the electorate. That means taking on unpopular cases, and, importantly, it means not pursuing certain cases even when the public is clamoring for heads to roll.

Don’t let politics anywhere near individual cases. A related issue, which all elected DAs face, is what to do about the politicians, community leaders, donors, and other supporters whom Katz has been courting for years. History reveals that some who have granted her favors will want to weigh in on particular cases. Resist that temptation: Only involved parties should get an audience with the DA’s office.

Use asset forfeiture money to prevent crime. Because of its participation in a federal task force, the office is sitting on many tens of millions in asset forfeiture money from bank settlements. Follow the lead of the Manhattan DA and use that money to prevent crime. Manhattan has used the money, among other things, to clear rape kit backlogs, support sports programs, and prevent cyberattacks.

Don’t forget white-collar crime and organized crime. Almost completely missing from the race was the battle against fraud, corruption, and organized crime, absent platitudes like Cabán’s pledge to “go after” landlords. But this is a serious area, and Queens is a serious office; Katz would do well to redouble its extensive existing focus.

All in all, Katz seems to be a mature, reasonable politician who, while committed to progressive change, isn’t about to blow up the system. Careful thought and a steady hand should help her succeed in a tough job.

Alonso (@DanielRAlonso), a former federal prosecutor, most recently served as chief assistant Manhattan district attorney. He is managing director and general counsel of Exiger.