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Why Police Accountability Is Personal for This Manhattan D.A. Candidate

The first time Alvin Bragg began thinking about police accountability was not long after an officer put a gun to his head, when he was a 15-year-old in Harlem in the 1980s.

Nearly 30 years later, as a prosecutor at the state attorney general’s office in 2017, Mr. Bragg found himself confronting the same issue, overseeing the case against Officer Wayne Isaacs, who was off duty when he killed Delrawn Small in the early morning in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn.

The officer was charged with murder and manslaughter. Video of the shooting, prosecutors argued, appeared to contradict the officer’s account. The jury acquitted him anyway.

“I felt dejected, demoralized, really upset for the family,” Mr. Bragg recalled. “I felt like our system had not worked.”

Now, the issues of police accountability and public integrity that Mr. Bragg confronted as a prosecutor are at the center of his campaign to lead one of the most important district attorney’s offices in the country. Mr. Bragg, 47, a Democrat, is one of nine candidates vying for the office, and is among those seeking to balance concerns about public safety against a progressive push to make the criminal justice system less punitive.

In seeking to position himself as the candidate most capable of changing the system from the inside, Mr. Bragg has leaned on his personal history — including both his street-corner and courtroom encounters with the police. And Mr. Bragg, who is the only Black candidate running, would be the first Black person to lead an office where, researchers have found, race continues to be a critical factor in nearly every part of the process.

But his history leading the unit that tried Officer Isaacs — a unit charged with investigating police killings of unarmed civilians — undermines a record that sounds better than it looks, his opponents and their supporters charge. Under Mr. Bragg, the unit, then called the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit, investigated 24 cases and brought back zero convictions. (It has not fared any better since he left, three years ago.)

“The Manhattan district attorney needs to be able to manage the most complicated and difficult cases, and that includes holding police accountable,” said Lucy Lang, another candidate in the race, who at a debate last week attacked Mr. Bragg’s record on police accountability. “Unfortunately, in the 24 cases of police killings that came before him, Alvin wasn’t able to hold a single officer accountable.”

Mr. Bragg said that his record leading the unit, now called the Office of Special Investigation, showed only that the law makes it extremely difficult to successfully prosecute police officers.

Experts agree. Though there are exceptions, including the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Mr. Bragg’s record with the unit at the attorney general’s office is not unusual. It remains extremely difficult to charge, let alone convict, police officers.

Peter Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions, said that Mr. Bragg was fighting within a system that was heavily weighted against him. (Mr. Neufeld endorsed Mr. Bragg last month.)

It doesn’t make sense when looking at somebody who is taking on an adversary with both hands tied behind his back to measure his win-loss record,” he said.

Mr. Bragg grew up on 139th Street in the heart of Harlem. Born in 1973, on the cusp of the city’s fiscal crisis, he said he learned at an early age which blocks were safe and which were not, the places he could go and the places that were best avoided.

His mother, a math teacher, kept a close eye on him and made sure he focused on school, drilling him on his multiplication tables on the M10 bus and asking him to stay within the confines of their block. His father, who worked for the New York Urban League, regaled him with stories about the Willis Reed-era New York Knicks and encouraged him to get outside.

There could be trouble, even close to home. When Mr. Bragg was 10 years old, he had a knife put to his neck by some teenagers in the middle of the day, in what he described as a “hazing,” but a very scary one.

And then there were the police. About five years later, he was walking with a friend when an unmarked police car began driving the wrong way on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, he said. Three officers emerged from the car. One put a gun to Mr. Bragg’s head. They asked if he was dealing drugs and started going through his pockets.

“You didn’t need to go to law school to know this was unlawful,” Mr. Bragg said. His interest in criminal justice started there.

He went to Harvard and Harvard Law School and clerked for the federal judge Robert Patterson Jr., where he first began to see the way that prosecutors could work on behalf of public safety. After several years working as a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, he became a prosecutor at the New York attorney general’s office, looking at public corruption and white-collar crime. He later worked under Preet Bharara, then U.S. attorney for the Southern District, as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, before returning to the attorney general’s office, where he focused on police misconduct.

Mr. Bharara, who has endorsed Mr. Bragg, said that he had been set apart while a federal prosecutor by his concerns about police accountability and public corruption.

“He’s not jumping on the bandwagon in connection with the race for office,” Mr. Bharara said. “He’s cared about these things for a long time.”

Mr. Bragg is one of nine candidates, eight Democrats and one Republican, running to replace Cyrus R. Vance Jr. as the chief prosecutor in Manhattan, a position that carries immense power to affect the criminal justice system in New York City.

He has said that his overall focus will be on decreasing the number of people behind bars, that he will create a new unit to investigate police misconduct, move resources toward prosecutors investigating economic crime and overhaul the sex crimes unit. He has proposed a plan that would work to stem the flow of guns into New York from out of state.

Many of Mr. Bragg’s ideas reflect the move to the left in prosecutorial elections in cities around the country in recent years — a shift that has ushered in a new breed of progressive prosecutor.

Initially the race in Manhattan seemed to follow that pattern, as the majority of the Democratic candidates promoted lenient approaches to certain low-level crimes.

But in recent months, as gun violence has continued to rise in New York City and another leading Democratic candidate, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, has stressed the importance of prosecuting crime, tension has grown between those pushing for leniency and those emphasizing public safety. (As of January, Mr. Bragg had raised more money than anyone other than Ms. Farhadian Weinstein and on Saturday, a racial justice organization, Color of Change, said it would spend $1 million promoting his candidacy.)

Mr. Bragg has found a synthesis, based on his biography, that he hopes will persuade voters.

“People care about both,” he said. “They want civil rights and public safety. Being safe is your first civil right, and we can’t have safety without community trust, which is based on civil rights.”

And so he relies on his record — even when his opponents say it is unflattering. Under pressure from Ms. Lang during last week’s debate, he called the unit that has garnered zero convictions “the most transformative, transparent unit in this space in the history of this country.”

Mr. Bragg has argued that the way his office worked with the victims’ families marked the beginning of a productive alliance between prosecutors and protesters, both pushing for justice. The unit was created after Eric Garner’s death in police custody in 2014; Mr. Bragg has been endorsed by Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr.

Mr. Small’s brother, Victor Dempsey, said that Mr. Bragg had consulted him throughout the case against Officer Isaacs. He has endorsed Mr. Bragg’s candidacy.

Alvin has been a tremendous part in my advocacy work and my family’s advocacy work because he kind of gave us the impetus to keep fighting,” he said.

But not all of Mr. Small’s family has backed Mr. Bragg. Victoria Davis, his sister, has endorsed Ms. Lang, who worked as a prosecutor under Mr. Vance.

In a recent conversation, Ms. Davis said that she did not feel Mr. Bragg had done everything he could for her brother, who she said was demonized during the officer’s trial because of a tattoo.

“I think he wasn’t humanized,” she said of her brother.

Mr. Bragg still dwells on the acquittal of Officer Isaacs. He agreed with Ms. Davis that the defense team had successfully dehumanized Mr. Small, transforming him into what Mr. Bragg called a “Black boogeyman,” a tactic that predated the modern criminal justice system.

“The part that is sad is that it works,” he said. “That racial imagery is a tie that binds throughout our history. Ultimately that’s the original sin, and we’ve got to address that.”

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