NEW YORK — New York City’s new police commissioner has expressed severe dissatisfaction with the policies of the new Manhattan district attorney, sending an email to all officers late Friday that suggests a potential rupture between City Hall and the prosecutor over their approaches to crime and public safety.
The email from Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said she was deeply troubled by policies outlined by District Attorney Alvin Bragg in a 10-page memo that Bragg sent to his staff Monday. The memo instructed prosecutors to avoid seeking jail or prison time for all but the most serious crimes and to cease charging a number of lower-level crimes.
Sewell, who, like Bragg, was just a week into her job, said in her email to about 36,000 members of the department that she had studied the policies and come away “very concerned about the implications to your safety as police officers, the safety of the public and justice for the victims.”
The email, which was first reported by WNBC-TV, suggests a looming conflict not just in their relationship, but also in that between the new district attorney and the commissioner’s boss, Mayor Eric Adams.
The collision course between Adams and Bragg was sketched out during the Democratic primary in the spring of 2021. Adams made a crackdown on crime one of the main themes of his campaign; Bragg, following in the path carved by a handful of prosecutors in cities around the country, pledged to help reshape the legal system to avoid disproportionate punishment for first-time offenders or those struggling with mental health issues or poverty.
In a statement Saturday, a spokesperson for Bragg’s office said, “We share Commissioner Sewell’s call for frank and productive discussions to reach common ground on our shared mission to deliver safety and justice for all and look forward to the opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings.”
“For our office, safety is paramount,” the statement said. It added that contrary to the way that Sewell and others had interpreted parts of the memo, the office intended to charge anyone who used guns to rob stores or who assaulted police officers with felonies. “All must be held accountable for their actions,” it said.
To some degree, the emerging tensions between Sewell and Bragg reflect a broader political argument between centrist Democrats across the nation looking to soothe voters worried about crime and a movement of progressive prosecutors that has pushed for more lenient policies to make the justice system more fair and less biased.
Some of those tensions are likely to play out in Albany this year in a debate over whether to scale back changes in a state bail law that went into effect two years ago, and that provoked strong reactions almost immediately.
At the same time, such disputes are not uncommon. There is an ingrained tension between the police and prosecutors that often centers on what charges to bring and, at times, whether there is sufficient evidence to make an arrest. For the police, in some measure, the job ends with handcuffs, while prosecutors are left with proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt or finding some other resolution. But such arguments do not often became public at all, let alone so early in a new administration.
Adams has been complimentary about Bragg when asked about him in recent interviews, calling him a “great prosecutor” and declining to criticize the memo. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A police spokesperson said the memo “speaks for itself.”
Bragg and Adams, both Democrats, have significant histories in law enforcement, and both have pledged some measure of reform. Bragg, a former federal prosecutor, stood out in a competitive primary vowing to balance safety with justice. Adams, a former police captain, has spoken out against police brutality and, while serving, pushed for changes within the department.
Bragg is the first Black person to lead the district attorney’s office, Adams is the second Black mayor in the city’s history, and Sewell is the first woman and third Black person to lead the Police Department.
In his memo, Bragg instructed his prosecutors to ask judges for jail or prison time only for those who had committed serious offenses, including murder, sexual assault and major economic crimes, unless required to do otherwise by law. Others, he has said, would be directed to programs better equipped to deal with the issues that had led them to commit the crimes.
Bragg also instructed his prosecutors not to charge a number of misdemeanors. Many of the crimes on his list already were not being prosecuted by his predecessor, Cyrus Vance. But Bragg directed his staff to avoid charging several misdemeanors which previously had been charged, including resisting arrest.
“These policy changes not only will, in and of themselves, make us safer; they also will free up prosecutorial resources to focus on violent crime,” Bragg said in his memo.
The directive on resisting arrest was among those that Sewell expressed most concern about. She said that it would send a message to police officers and others that there was “an unwillingness to protect those who are carrying out their duties.”
“I strongly believe that this policy injects debate into decisions that would otherwise be uncontroversial, will invite violence against police officers and will have deleterious effects on our relationship with the communities we protect,” she wrote.
Bragg has also instructed his prosecutors not to seek jail time for gun possession. The commissioner strongly objected to that policy, saying that it “affords people the opportunity to continually possess guns without consequence,” and calling it the issue that most directly affected officers’ safety.
Sewell’s email, sent about 8:30 p.m. on the Friday of Adams’ first week in office, capped a whirlwind day for the city’s top criminal justice officials. Earlier in the day, Adams announced a deputy mayor for public safety, Philip Banks, only after Banks made the appointment public in an opinion piece in The Daily News.
Banks had faced significant scrutiny given his history as a subject of a federal corruption investigation that resulted in prosecutors naming him as an unindicted co-conspirator. Also on Friday, Adams’ brother, Bernard Adams, was named as a deputy police commissioner. Bernard Adams retired as a sergeant for the New York Police Department in 2006, and he has more recently worked as an operations manager and parking administrator at Virginia Commonwealth University, according to his LinkedIn profile.
It is unclear what the mayor’s role in the commissioner’s memo might have been. Sewell, an outsider to the NYPD who had been the chief of detectives in the Nassau County Police Department, a far smaller agency, was his choice for police commissioner after a nationwide search, and she reports to him and to Banks. As mayor, Adams has the ability to dictate police policy and he has, throughout the campaign, maintained that he has every intention of using that power.
Sewell’s email dissected Bragg’s policies at length and took issue with a number of them.
She expressed concern about his instruction that robberies of businesses be treated as misdemeanors if the offender does not create a genuine risk of physical harm, and with the downgrading of certain drug charges. She asked for clarification on several policies and said his policy of not prosecuting fare evasion — which Vance announced he would stop charging in most instances more than four years ago — was a potential issue.
Bragg’s memo included an important caveat: He said that all such requests must adhere to the law. That will significantly dilute some of the most far-reaching effects of his new policies. New York law requires those who have been convicted of a felony in the past to be imprisoned if found guilty of a second such crime, and many of the worst offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences that Bragg’s prosecutors will be compelled to heed.
Prosecutors around the country with policies similar to Bragg’s have faced vocal opposition, particularly from police unions, and in the days after the rollout of the new district attorney’s memo, several such unions objected strongly to his program.
On Saturday morning, Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the union supported Sewell’s positions. And the often combative union leader added that he was looking forward to working with her and Bragg.
But the letter from Sewell suggested that Bragg would face significant headwinds as he tried to carry out the vision that he campaigned on. However, several of his peers in cities around the country — including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kim Foxx in Chicago — cruised to reelection after facing similar opposition.
In an interview on CNN Friday morning, Bragg defended his policies. “This is what I was elected to do,” he said.
Sewell and Bragg were in contact this week, and Bragg hopes to meet soon, his spokesperson said. Sewell said in her email that she hoped “to try and reach more common ground.”