New era ushered in with Hynes' replacement
By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Sunday, Feb. 9, behind the backdrop of navy blue drapes and in the presence of an admiring audience filling out a soundstage at the Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kenneth Thompson became the first African-American to ever be sworn in as Brooklyn’s top prosecutor.
The legal community, federal leaders, state politicians and a few celebrities came together on a snowy winter afternoon to serve as witnesses to history. The star list of speakers all spoke to one unifying theme that Thompson is a beacon of change. In fact, the ceremony began with a video presentation of Thompson’s journey to the DA’s Office playing over a rendition of Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a lifelong Brooklyn resident, nodded to such change, noting that “in 2008, I did not serve under a Black president, a Black [Brooklyn] borough president, or a Black[Brooklyn] DA. In 2013, I serve under a Black president, Barack Obama; a Black borough president, Eric Adams; and a Black DA, Ken Thompson.”
Schumer expressed his delight to speak at a ceremony for Thompson, who had been “a fighter of for justice long before he ran for DA.” He spoke about Thompson’s push, while in the private sector, for the Department of Justice to reopen the case of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in segregated Mississippi.
Other members from the Brooklyn delegation in Congress spoke of their confidence in, and support of, Thompson in his new role. “Ken Thompson took a giant leap forward,” Congressman Hakeem Jeffries said of his friend of more than 15 years’ decision to run for public office. “And aren’t we glad where he landed.” Congresswoman Yvette Clarke called Thompson the “Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn DA’s office,” for his achievement of becoming the first black person to hold the title of Brooklyn DA.
Thompson’s early years in public housing, with a mother who served in law enforcement, illustrates Thompson’s understanding that “our legal system is to ensure that whether you live in public housing or own a brownstone in Brooklyn, you are in entitled to justice,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. The unequal application of justice, which Congressman Jerrold Nadler described as the “cancer in the legal system,” is recognized by Thompson, “the right surgeon to excise the cancer,” Nadler said.
Local politicians lent their support to Thompson. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer described him as a “great prosecutor and a great defender…who will look at our justice system and apply it equally.” Brooklyn is a county “whose people deserve safe neighborhoods and a DA no only looking out for their safety but also equally, justice and community,” noted New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli of Thompson’s task ahead.
The intersection of justice and equality also influenced many speakers’ belief in Thompson’s ability to navigate the murky waters of civil liberties and crime prevention. “Law is not the law if it violates the principles of internal justice,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “Change has come to Brooklyn … and it came convincingly … it came as justice in action.”
The support and admiration for Thompson was most evident in the speeches of his longtime and early supporters and those who assisted in the beginning the campaign and remained through the zenith of the race. There is a need “of a criminal justice system that works, and with Ken [Thompson] we are sure that this is what we’ll have,” said community leader Gary Schlesinger.
“Thank you for the dignity you’ve brought back to Brooklyn,” noted Divinah Bailey, a Brooklyn civil rights activist. For Bertha Lewis, the CEO of the Black Institute, “Ken Thompson was the right man at the right time for the right job.” Lewis recounted that people first “ignore you, then they laugh at you and then you win. They ignored, they laughed and in the end, we won.”
Newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, a proclaimed progressive, spoke further to Thompson’s history and how it has influenced Thompson’s own progressive policies. “[Thompson] understands the work of the law enforcement officer because it came home every night at the kitchen table,” deBalsio said of Thompson’s upbringing by a mother who served as one of the first woman police officers to walk the neighborhood beat in 1973. “Ken in going to help create a new New York where rights and safety work hand in hand, which includes reducing stop-and-frisk and getting guns off the streets.”
After taking the oath of office, administered by beloved federal judge Hon. Sterling Johnson Jr., Thompson laid out his plan for Brooklyn, including dealing with the “epidemic of gun violence” and the need to “resolve ourselves of these illegal guns.” Thompson emphasized the importance to prevent crime while simultaneously protecting citizens’ rights and prosecuting crimes.
“We must create new crime strategies…to work with the NYPD to focus on individuals,” said Thompson. Included in these strategies is “building a relationship between the Police Department and the community … getting rid of stop-and-frisk when there is no reasonable suspicion … and removing the [stigma] of snitching.” The youth are the future, Thompson believes, and the protection of a youth’s future involves “chang[ing] the policy for how we treat small possessions of marijuana” and “raising the age of criminal responsibility.”
Thompson furthered signaled a new beginning with himself at the helm by introducing two new units: a labor unit and an immigrant affairs unit. He pronounced that he is “pro-business,” but added that he would nevertheless hold accountable “unscrupulous employers who withhold paychecks, do not pay employees minimum wage, or make workplaces unsafe.” This move echoes the national progress to increase the federal minimum wage and increase employee protections.
As the country and public opinion are moving forward in favor of reforming immigration policy, Thompson hopes to follow suit by creating an immigration affairs unit aimed at “seeking out those who scam immigrants” who are solely interested in attaining legal U.S. citizenship by “offer[ing] education and recourse for those who find themselves victims to those [false] schemes.”
Thompson thanked his predecessor, Charles “Joe” Hynes, for his service as Brooklyn’s DA for more than two decades, but stressed that he is ushering in a new era. Hynes, who was the first incumbent district attorney to be defeated in Brooklyn in more than a century, lost to Thompson in the Democratic Party primary. He ran against Thompson on the GOP and Conservative Party in the general election, only to lose at the polls by 10 points.
“We stand at the end of an era, but at the precipice of a new one,” said Public Advocate James. For Mayor de Blasio, Thompson’s inauguration is a “chance to make history, not just with the swearing-in but with everything that comes after.”