Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg Looks Back at 2023

Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg
( Craig Ruttle/AP / AP Photo )


Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning everyone. It's our last show before Christmas. We will end it leading up to 12 o'clock with a social history of toys. We'll begin it by taking stock of the state of public safety in New York City as 2023 nears a 10 with Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg. Bragg and Mayor Adams may not always agree with each other on policy, but they will both tell you, "Hey, it's not 2021 anymore when it comes to public safety on the streets and subways and elsewhere in the City of New York."

We did a segment earlier this week about perceptions of the economy, maybe not catching up to the realities of recovery. Maybe the same thing is happening with crime, but as with the economy, all is not perfect either, so let's talk. We'll also touch on the law and Donald Trump. One of the many prosecutions lined up for 2024 has been brought by Alvin Bragg. That's the hush-money case involving money paid to Stormy Daniels. Remember, not only to hush her up about their relationship allegedly, but in a hush-hush way to hide that it was a campaign expense. That's the charge. DA Bragg, always good to have you on the show. Happy holidays. Welcome back to WNYC.

DA Alvin Bragg: Thanks so much for having me. Happy holidays to you. Great to be talking with you this morning.

Brian Lehrer: Is Manhattan safer? Is New York City safer than before you were elected in 2021 or on New Year's Day 2023? I see you have some numbers.

DA Alvin Bragg: Yes. Look, I think you hit the nail on the head. The city and in particular Manhattan is safer. The data shows that from the day I walked in the office, but we certainly have more work to do to get back to 2018 levels. Just to give a couple of examples, from the day I walked into office to now, shootings are down 38%. We're very encouraged by that. Homicide is down 24% from the day I walked down to the office, and year to date, Manhattan, all the indicators are down. More work to do. We're going to keep on doing what we did the last two years to get us back to 2018 levels, and hopefully below those.

Brian Lehrer: Listeners, your calls on public safety for Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, and on the Trump hush-money case, if you like, 212-433 WNYC, 212-433-9692. Call or text. One of the enduring feelings of not being safe that people have, and I'm sure you're completely aware of this, even if the numbers are better in general, is that total crime may be down. Total crime never approached what it was in the 1970s or '80s, even at the peak in these last few years, but the randomness of crimes. Michelle Go being pushed onto the subway tracks, the most famous case, but many others like that, at whatever level of violence has people constantly anxious compared to the past when it seemed like violent crime was more commonly between people who knew each other. Do you have any way to measure the persistence or decline of that kind of random attack?

DA Alvin Bragg: Again, I think you put your finger on it. This is something that we are looking at every day. It's something I think about a lot. I think the word random, look, I was here in the '80s. I lived, through that period. The random assault is something that in particularly-- you used an example from our train system, is something that we are thinking about a lot. We are prosecuting violence every day to hold people accountable and to deter. That's important. We try to let people know about that. I think where we also need to focus and what we're doing every day is when we look back into something horrific happens, like a train push, which of course we prosecute and hold people accountable for, we look and see that there were other potential intervention points with the system. That's what we're hardening.

We've invested almost $10 million from our budget into hardening the mental health infrastructure so that when people are out in communities, we have people from not-for-profits who are going up to them, trying to intervene before we get to that point of an act of violence. We're going to have a launch of a program later this year where we'll have folks right in our courtrooms being tasked with connecting people with mental health services when they're exiting. I think we got to do both. We have to be on the front end working on prevention and intervention, and we're doing that. Then we also have to be holding accountable people who commit the acts, and we're doing that. Someone who's been here my whole life, I'm still here. I see what everyone is seeing. This is what we're thinking about. What I'm thinking about before I go to sleep, and what I'm thinking about when I'm waking up.

Brian Lehrer: Yes. On that subject still, and you just referred to interventions with people who have mental health conditions. I know your office has its own initiatives on that, which we'll get to, but it's also been a year now since Mayor Adams started using the NYPD and others more aggressively to take people off the street and hospitalize them for apparent serious mental illness if they seem like a threat to themselves, unable to take care of themselves or a threat to others. Can you say that that has made any difference? That Adams's policy has made any difference in terms of public safety or any quantifiable reduction in the numbers of those kinds of attacks?

DA Alvin Bragg: Look, it's not our program, so I don't have any additional insight for what you might have, but I've seen what the mayor said, and I take that and credit that. I think we are not seeing those folks in our docket. I think that on this issue, what we are trying to do is have been my focus. You said we'll get to that later, so I'm happy to talk about that because we're doing so many things. I do think those things really, really help drive the numbers in the right direction, but we need everyone. We need the entire city focused on this. A lot of the things that we're doing, we had an initiative on 125th Street, where we had in one storefront, the NYPD, the DA's office, and a number of mayoral agencies. Homeless services, Department of Health, Department of Buildings, because things are taking place under illegal scaffolding. That partnership is robust in working together, and I think we need to be thinking about these issues across the entire city and all of our agencies.

Brian Lehrer: Tell us about your mental health initiatives.

DA Alvin Bragg: We have a few. We have one which is set to launch a little bit this year called our courtroom navigators, where anytime someone's released out of our arraignment port, their case is called, that they're released, we'll have someone from the Fortune Society, which is a group that provides social services, particularly for those who are just as involved are going to ask one simple question, "What do you need?" If it's food, they're going to provide that. If it's services, and they're trained in this, mental health, drug addiction, they're going to do that. I think most potentially transformative, if it's housing, and that's a need that we see repeatedly, they're going to take them from the courtroom to their emergency housing. This is on top of any court mandate or anything that might be done.

Puting the services right there, that intervention right there in the courtroom, we think is something, and qualitative experience shows could be really, really, really productive in reducing recidivism. Our goal is to have it be so that those numbers continue to go down and all go in the right direction. I think that intervention point right there is going to be important. That's one thing that we've conceived and funded. The other, which I mentioned is, we call community navigators. Folks who are out in a number of Manhattan neighborhoods, when they see something that might distress any of us, as we're walking around here, any of your listeners, you or me, we might see it as the person who is talking to him or herself and in this weather doesn't have a shirt on, they're going to go engage that person. Engage that person and try to engage them productively and connect them before something happens.

The courtroom is to reduce recidivism out in the community. It is to prevent. We're excited about that. We think we're in a moment when if I had to identify one issue that cuts across all of our practice, and if you come to any of the criminal courts, on a Monday morning, probably anywhere in the country, but certainly anywhere in the city, you'll see the brokenness of our healthcare system. These are two issues they're going to really, really try to step into the breach.

Brian Lehrer: How much does that brokenness impede you from doing some of the things you were just describing? If you want to take somebody from the courtroom and put them in supportive housing, I think you were indicating that a minute ago, there's such a shortage of supportive housing. Do you come up against that mismatch that then leaves you lost as to, "Well, what do I do with this person because the appropriate housing is actually not available?"

DA Alvin Bragg: I'll start specific and go broad in terms of the specific initiative of the courtroom navigators, one of the reasons we have a procurement process, and one of the reasons the Fortune Society won that bidding process was because they have the capacity. They have the capacity to take in from our courts, from an emergency basis. We need more of that but they are positioned and I think we will be able to do that. More generally, you are 1000% correct. We face in our practice daily the binary position between sending someone to Rikers with its conditions versus sitting in the back of the neighborhood.

We need a third lane. We need more of the mental health treatments. I was at the groundbreaking for the Hope House, so the Greenburger Centers. There's going to be 16 beds of secure mental health facility which is great but we need about 100 more Hope Houses. There are people who should not be back out with us but them being in Rikers is not helping them or our communities which they will one day come back to. Yes, we need more of that. Beck had a very productive meeting earlier this week with a lot of Manhattan electives to articulate this need which is fundamentally a funding one. We need more funding to address this and it will make us safer, that's the point. It will make us safer, we've seen it. It's part of the reason we've invested in it which is part of the reason we're seeing the numbers going down. If we get more funding for this we will be safer.

Brian: I want to come back to Rikers in a few minutes as we go and ask you whether in court as Manhattan DA or just how it feels as a human being to ask the court to send somebody to Rikers at this particular time when we know the horrors of the conditions there. I think they're more well known to the public now than they have generally been in the past and they may be getting worse or maybe they're getting a little better but I want to come back to your relationship with sending people to Rikers in the real world in the course of your job but let's take a phone call. 212-433 WNYC. 212-433-9692 call or text for Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg as we talk about crime at the end of the year 2023 in New York City. Dan in Manhattan, you're on WNYC. Hello.

Dan: Hello Brian. Good morning Brian. Good morning DA Bragg. Happy holidays to you both. I just wanted to dig a little deeper on the improvements to public safety that DA Bragg was talking about and Brian that you were talking about in the lead-in. The reductions in crime and quantitatively-- trying to get as quantitative as possible to what do you attribute those reductions in crime and a little more specifically what's the relationship again as quantitatively as possible between the efforts around bail reform and reducing recidivism.

Brian: Dan, I'll give you one more thought on this before we get a response. Are you coming from any particular place on that? Are you coming from the place of somebody who believes that bail reform is actually contributing to a reduction in crime or the opposite, or are you asking that question to try to make a point?

Dan: No, I'm trying to be as objective as possible but very often I hear the conversations lack a little bit of quantification and they seem to be discussed in two different silos. I'm certainly in favor of a lot of the principles around bail reform and preventing recidivism and obviously in favor of a reduction in crime and increase in public safety but--

Brian: Great question Dan. I appreciate where you're coming from on just trying to get more information and measurable data. DA Bragg, how would you answer the question?

DA Alvin Bragg: Sure, I think I want to divide the answer into violent crime, shootings, and homicides and then also as a second part shoplifting and maybe the more order maintenance quality of life. I think the answer's different. The specific data where we are from the day I walked in the office, shootings are down 38%, homicides are down 24%. How did we get there? I think we got there in large part through precision prosecution and targeted investment. What do I mean by that?

We meet daily with all of our stakeholders in law enforcement. We know the small number of people driving gun violence in particular which is where most of our homicides come from. We are focusing on them and we are prosecuting. We're doing it in a very precision way and holding people accountable.

At the same time and perhaps more focused than historically, we are also looking at those neighborhoods because historically what can happen is that you create a vacuum when you prosecute someone and then someone steps into that vacuum, and then we have someone else who's been doing the same violence. We've been strategically investing in those neighborhoods with neighborhood groups and associations so that we are filling that vacuum with positive support. I think that that is a significant reason why shootings are down 38%, and homicides are down 24%. Those are [inaudible 00:15:47] numbers. The bail law changes have not particularly affected our shootings and homicides because on those cases we are asking for and getting bail routinely. That's part one to the question.

Part two is we are seeing decreases in larceny for example, petty larceny which is shopping and stealing something less than $1000 was down 8% this year in Manhattan. Robberies this year in Manhattan are down 10%. That's quantifiable data showing that we're moving in the right direction. We're using a similar approach as we are in the shootings. It's a larger universe of people who are shoplifting than shooting but we're focusing on the folks who are the core recidivists.

Of those arrested for shoplifting, for example, 18% account for about 45% of the arrests. We've been focusing [inaudible 00:16:51] on the core people who are repeatedly engaging in this and the bail statute we talk about it as a static statute. It has actually changed a number of times so it wasn't just one reform.

The last one allowed us as prosecutors to ask for bail if someone is out on a crime and they commit another one while they're out so one shoplifting and another. That has given us in my view, superficial tools and we're using them. I think that's why robberies and shoplifting are down in Manhattan. Importantly, I would say some of those cases are cases where there's organized retail theft and we are investigating larger organizations and holding people accountable in that way. In some ways are cases where we're connecting them to mental health and drug treatment because that's what's driving.

Ultimately, we want the conduct to stop and us to see crime go down and so we're using the tool in our tool kit that is best suited for the case. I think separating that answer out into violent crime and then shoplifting and crimes like that is the best way to think about it.

Brian: Good to remind people as you did that that bail reform law has changed and if you want to call it that rolled back a little bit, been rolled back since the original 2019 passage, and interesting that you, known as a progressive prosecutor, seem to want that additional ability to put recidivists behind bars while they were out on bail so an interesting answer. We'll continue with Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg and your calls right after this.


Brian: Brian Lehrer on WNYC as we continue to talk about public safety in New York City, Manhattan in particular. Manhattan especially but the whole city at the end of 2023 with the Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg. 212-433 WNYC. Call or text. How do you feel DA Bragg when you get a court to remand somebody to Rikers at this point knowing how many people are dying there? Knowing the other horrific conditions that have been documented? Knowing the dispute that's taking place over whether New York City as an entity is even capable of managing Rikers safely anymore for corrections officers as well inmates and people incarcerated there, and that maybe the Federal Government should take it over? How do you feel when you ask the court to send somebody to Rikers?

DA Alvin Bragg: It is deeply challenging. I don't know what other word I can use. You personalize it, as to me, I would just broaden it. We have 500-plus prosecutors here and I think it's one of the most challenging things we do. I personally have had family-owned Rikers, and I've visited Rikers recently and in the past. One thing that was extraordinarily important to me was to make sure that others in my office got a chance to, not just from the papers, but really have an insider's view. We've had a couple of trainings for our office. One, a few months ago where we had two people who used to be doctors in Rikers and the former head of the oversight at the BOC. I just thought that was incredibly important, troubling, challenging to hear, but really, really fundamentally important context.

All of our cases are obviously driven by the facts and by keeping us all safe. That goes back to what I was talking about earlier with Hope House. There are a universe of cases where people cannot be out among us safely, but we know that sending them to Rikers is not ultimately making us safer, because putting them in that environment to have them come back out doesn't advance public safety. I've been really, really trying to sound the alarm we're needing more mental health infrastructure, a third lane, if you will, somewhere else to have people go instead of Rikers. It is extraordinarily challenging. It goes hand-in-hand with what I was talking about on our mental health practice. We've been using our diversion courts with mental health, drug diversion, to connect people there, but even in those cases, they're in Rikers for a time.

It is needless to say, the system more broadly is imperfect, and it's challenging to operate within an imperfect system. It's our charge, it's our duty, and we've got to do so consistent with public safety for Manhattan. In a word to answer your question, challenging.

Brian Lehrer: Antoine calling from Baltimore but also lives in New York. Antoine, you're on WNYC with DA Alvin Bragg. Hello.

Antoine: Hello. This is a much overdue conversation, and thank you so much. I formerly used to lead a group of research around asking this question around what Black and Brown communities need to feel safe and thrive in New York City. Could you talk a little bit about your office's public engagement around the public perception of interpersonal safety as it relates to community safety? Because I could imagine that there is disproportionate violence that happens in and around New York City and that is often happening with younger people.

DA Alvin Bragg: Antoine, you framed it perfectly, particularly the shooting numbers I talked about, they are happening in pockets in our communities and the racial disparity data is eye-popping. Shootings in New York City, this is New York City-wide data, 97% of the victims are Black or brown, 97% in our city. That is something that we've been focused on like a laser. Those are our cases and we think about our office as an office of lawyers, but we also have clinicians, advocates, people who are working with victims and survivors across a range, all of our cases.

In this area, we've formed a men of color group of clinicians and advocates to support our victims, given that 97% of data and a group that historically, and I certainly understand this from my own experiences, doesn't want to engage with law enforcement. We want to provide services and we are providing services, this is just one example that I think is responsive to your question, to address that trauma, the trauma of seeing, of being around and experiencing violence.

It's important for that individual, it's important for the individual case, for the person who may testify, but it's also more broadly important for our public safety. We want to address that trauma before it spreads, before it metastasizes from that victim to the entire family to larger pockets in the community because what we see over and over again is someone who's our witness one week, maybe our victim the next week and the next month maybe our defendant.

We are hard at work trying to address those racial disparities in a lot of ways, but that's the one example of an intervention and supports for people who are disproportionately affected by violence that we think helps them, helps get accountability in individual cases and more broadly helps keep us all safe in the long run.

Brian Lehrer: Antoine, thank you very much for that great call. I want to ask you about hate crimes. At the height of the pandemic, it was Asian Americans, at least those are the ones getting a lot of press attention after Trump's China virus creed. Now it's maybe more people who look Jewish or Muslim with what's going on in the Middle East. We have a text message from a listener who just asks straight up, what is the DA doing to protect Jews? Do you have hate crime data for 2023, for post-October 7th, 2023, and anything that you're doing that's new?

DA Alvin Bragg: Look, this is a top, top priority. Our hate crime prosecutions in the office are up 24%. I'll take the question from the beginning, which is why I first came into office. You're right, the AAPI hate crime was sky-high. I went to the city council, I asked for more money to expand our hate crimes unit. I got about $1.7 million to do that. We went from 3 assistant district attorneys trained in the statute, to now approximately 20.

We deepened our investigation team and our outreach team because we know these are underreported. We've seen a 124% increase in hate crimes city-wide from 45 reported hate crimes in October 2022, to 101 reported hate crimes in October 2023. I don't have specific data for post-October 7th, but what I can tell you qualitatively is our unit is as busy as it's ever been. We are prosecuting these cases nearly daily. They are the most active unit, certainly historically, for that unit than they ever have been.

In addition to our vigorous accountability in prosecutions, we've also engaged with the legislature, because our statute is flawed. We have a statute. The way that the hate crime statute works for those who don't know, it's a sentencing enhancement. It's not a standalone crime. You get convicted of a crime, and then it's a bad crime as a hate crime, and it has holes. I'll just give you an example that I think is ludicrous and we're trying to plug. If one person assaults another because of their race, for example, that's an assault of a hate crime. We can charge that, we charge that a lot.

If five people assault someone, that's called gang assault in our statute. We can't call it gang assault as a hate crime because it's not a predicate for the hate crime statute. That's preposterous. We are looking to plug that, and we've got 30 others like that. There are 31 things that we want to add to the hate crime statute. We stood with a very broad coalition, I think something you said was very important. When I first came to the office, AAPI Hate Crime, now we're seeing anti-Semitic, anti-Arab hate crime.

The coalition that stood on that, the bill is called the Hate Crimes and Modernization Act, was as broad and diverse as the city. Hate doesn't discriminate, and hate will not be tolerated in Manhattan. If you'll allow me just one more, I would love to give our Hate Crimes Hotline number because we know it.

Brian Lehrer: Please do.

DA Alvin Bragg: It is a 212-335-3100. If you've been a victim or a witness to a hate crime or bias incident, please call that number. 212-335-3100. I should say, in Manhattan if you have been.

Brian Lehrer: We have four minutes left before I know you have to go. I want to touch two more things, and one of them I'm going to let a caller do because I'll tell you that 3 of our 10 lines are with people asking the same question, which is coming up more and more on the show. Stuart in Manhattan, you're on the air with DA Bragg on WNYC. We have to keep you to 20 seconds. Do it in a soundbite.

Stuart: Hello, Mr. Bragg. I appreciate speaking with you. My concern is the electric scooters that are all over the sidewalks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and I'm a 67-year-old with a wife, dog. The danger is outrageous. I just don't know what can be done. I'd like to be part of a solution. I'm a designer. I'm very interested in trying to figure out how this can be managed. I don't see-

Brian Lehrer: Stuart, forgive me for cutting you off, but I want to get to one other thing with the DA too, Trump. What about the preponderance of electrified vehicles of those types, moped, scooters, bikes? To so many of our callers, they're breaking the traffic laws all the time without prosecution.

DA Alvin Bragg: Yes. Look, I know this well. I almost got run over the other day on 125th Street. This is a problem. We're working on it. We are prosecuting these cases, in particular, what we're seeing with an electric scooter combined with a robbery, some are using them as a means to escape. We're doing those. There are some, again, holes in the legislative scheme in terms of what qualifies as an instrument, a vehicle that we can use as a basis of prosecution. We are in significant dialogue with the city council about addressing that, and so we can have more enhanced tools.

I would just say if you wanted to connect Stuart to my office offline, he sounds like he has a background as a designer. I would love to engage him with the folks who are working on this here.

Brian Lehrer: Stuart, if you want, hang on, we'll take your contact information off the air and set you up with DA Bragg's office. All right? The Trump Hush-Money Case, people have almost forgotten about it. With all these other indictments and everything else going on right now, what's the status?

DA Alvin Bragg: We have not forgotten about it. We're hard at work with a team of great career prosecutors with over a century of collective experience. If I could just, I know we're short on time, but start with saying that it is often shorthanded to hush money as we've laid out in public court filings. The core is not money for sex. We would say it's about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up. That's the heart of the case as we've laid out in court filings, as I'm sure, many if not all of your listeners know this defendant has another matter now, before the Supreme Court.

I'm not going to presume to predict the timing of what will happen there and how that would impact. What I will say is that our court now limits to just things that we've said in court. Our court, I believe wisely, has said that the court's going to wait and see what happens in other jurisdictions. We're back before the court on February 15th, and then assess at that time, and then make any adjustments. As I've said before, we've said in court, and I think we've said on this show before, we don't stand on ceremony here. We told the court in a public filing last month that we would not oppose an adjournment if there's a conflict.

We won't know that until February 15th. That's the time, and if that time there's a conflict, we will not stand on ceremony. We are at the ready with our team that's got more than 100 years of experience working.

Brian Lehrer: Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg. We always appreciate that you come on with us. You take listener calls, you answer any question I ask you. Thank you very much. Happy New Year.

DA Alvin Bragg: Thank you so much. You as well.



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