“As violent crime has been constantly reduced we now focus more and more on those remaining evildoers,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this month at a press conference announcing specialized gun courts for the city. The initiative, Project Fast Track, is being spearheaded by police commissioner Bill Bratton along with city and federal prosecutors. The court program, first launching in Brooklyn, would handle gun cases to serve one basic underlying purpose: to speed up gun convictions.
Many, however, might not equate “fast tracking” with justice or due process. Doing things faster doesn’t mean better or more accurate results, particularly with questions of guilt or criminality. Hearing the mayor of New York using George Bush-esque words like “evildoers” to introduce a plan that is an echo of a failed Michael Bloomberg initiative should worry his supporters.
The politics behind the latest efforts from the city to influence the judicial outcomes of the criminal justice system may stem from the shooting death of police officer Randolph Holder last year here in Spanish Harlem. Since then the mayor has stiffened his criminal justice posture, going so far as to rail against a bail system that he says is too lenient. Allowing Bratton to essentially create of a parallel court system seems like an outrageous overreach of power for police. Cops shouldn’t unfairly influence the courts, let alone be a part of creating new ones. Fast-tracking gun courts will not only raise questions in communities of color already distrustful of police, but they’ll raise legal and ethical questions about potentially rushed, wrongful convictions.
Bratton, flanked by prosecutors at the press conference, is is looking to expedite convictions for his officer’s arrests. “Arrests must lead to incarceration,” he said. He’ll be providing the police muscle, dedicating 200 police officers to a gun violence suppression division, in order to push the court system, whose judges Bratton has deemed too lenient in their sentencing practices, towards longer incarceration. If Bratton expects arrests to automatically lead to convictions—bypassing the possibility of an acquittal—then why not just cut the judges out and create cop-judge hybrids like in the science fiction movie Judge Dredd?
“I am the law,” Bratton is really saying.
The gun court idea would seem to be a legal extension of other police approaches to target gun crime but these courts will hear cases where there is simply a gun possession, not an actual shooting. There are already cases where multiple people are charged with possession of a single gun. A judicial express lane will net more bodies but raise more questions. Rates of pretrial detention are predicted to rise. Already we have a problem with young men of color, most who cannot afford strong legal representation, feeling a practical need to take plea deals when facing long prison sentences. These fast-tracking gun courts will only further push convictions towards decisions of expediency, not beyond-a-reasonable-doubt guilt.
It’s worth pointing out that Project Fast Track was developed by the Citizens Crime Commission, a private nonprofit created by the business world whose board of directors reads like a who’s who of corporate America. There are not the solutions proposed by community members living in the neighborhoods most affected by violence. Taylonn Murphy, the father of basketball star “Chicken” Murphy, killed by gun violence in 2011, has often spoken of addressing root causes—through poverty-reduction and youth programming—as an alternative to punitive policing and long prison terms. Why not listen to parents instead of business executives about how to help neighborhood tackle gun violence?
Officer Holder’s legacy should not include having to sacrifice the lives and freedom of potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of young men. Bratton has spoken about a policing “peace dividend” in a city that has historically low crime but it sounds like he’s going to war. Brushing off questions at the press conference over fairness in a gun court initiative that mimics a Bloomberg era approach, Mayor de Blasio seemed to come to the conclusion that the plan’s backers were above reproach. In a room full of police officials and prosecutors de Blasio said “I don’t think anyone here in this room is insensitive to concerns about fairness.”
Take a roomful of cops prosecutors at their word? That’s not how justice should work in this city.