District Attorney Rob Johnson: Justice and the Bronx

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Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson

On December 1st, Bronx Chronicle staff Kathleen Canzoniero and I had the opportunity to interview Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson. He has served as Bronx District Attorney for more than two decades.

Prior to being elected as District Attorney he was a judge for the New York City Criminal Court, and then promoted to the position for Acting Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. When District Attorney Mario Merola suddenly passed away, the then Judge Johnson decided to run as a candidate for District Attorney. Running against three opponents in the 1988 primary election, Robert Johnson was voted on the Democratic Candidate ticket for District Attorney. He won the election November of 1988 and was sworn in on January 1, 1989.

During our interview, Mr. Johnson spoke about his efforts to reduce gun violence. A couple of months ago he attended a national conference with other district attorney’s and prosecutors pertaining to gun violence. This coalition of twenty-two prosecutors from around the nation allowed various state leaders the opportunity to share ideas and collaborate on strategies to curb gun violence. Also delving into the emotional realm of being a district attorney, Mr. Johnson shared with us some of the cases through his career that were both memorable and difficult.

Lewis H. Goldstein: In your almost 26 years as District Attorney what has been most fulfilling?

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson: You know, the whole position is fulfilling. In terms of true justice, being District Attorney is a key position where I would consider it more so than a judge’s position. It’s really gratifying to be District Attorney but to also give it my all in each case when looking at the facts. It’s a position where you have to be objective and look at the facts. Take for example the death penalty, a highly charged topic. My personal opinions on it are not relevant but I believe that the community should know all the factors involved. To me it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to examine something based on what the law, the practicality, the pros and the cons are in order to speak your mind on it. This is another part of the job that is so gratifying.

Goldstein: What case or cases have been the most difficult for you?

Johnson: The case of David Pacheco Jr., the 2 year old shot on Easter Sunday, was difficult. The man accused of firing the gun was up on homicide charges and we had to step back in order for him to take a gun plea. It was a hard decision for us and for the family but it was an indication to where we thought justice was. After that, when we remained persistent in seeking justice we were able to indict someone else for the crime, who we believe now is the person we can prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This encapsulates what the whole system is about, being fair to defendants but bringing justice to the victims and the community.

There are so many homicides where I had to sit and talk to the families of the deceased…it is never an easy matter. Whether we are prosecuting, not prosecuting, there will always be wounds that time cannot completely heal.

In terms of really hitting home, the death of Assistant District Attorney Sean Healy was really a black day that, for me, lasted 26 years. Having to put together a prosecution, trying to console Sean’s family and colleagues in the office at the same time was grueling.

Goldstein: Do you feel you have ever been stopped by the police, not for anything you have done, but because you are black?

Johnson: I have to say no, but I’m always aware of that potential. It is always something in the back of your mind where you think, “Am I projecting a negative image of myself and will that get me stopped by the police?” I talk to my four sons about this and it is a real concern where you don’t want to be judged solely on the color of your skin. That means that you have to try to have your conduct be exceptional at all times.

Goldstein: How have changes in stop-and-frisk impacted your job?

Johnson: At the height of stop-and-frisk, it causes us to be more vigilant. Stop-and-frisk can be a valuable tool in uncovering illegal conduct but it has to be done according to the Constitution. We will not sacrifice the Constitution in order to bring forth cases. We have to spend time asking the proper questions and monitor the circumstances of each stop in order to say that the Fourth Amendment was adhered too.

Goldstein: Do you favor proposed legislation before the New York City Council which would require consent before a police officer can search a person?

Johnson: Actually requiring consent, unless there is probable cause to search, is necessary. The City Council is going to now step forward in saying that it should be written consent. This obviously makes it more clear for us in cases dealing with verbal consent. We already recommend that written consent to search a house is to be given before doing so and where there is a question of the need of a warrant.

Goldstein: As our District Attorney do you feel that the judicial system in NYC, and specifically in The Bronx, needs an overhaul?

Johnson: The major changes that need to be done are not in the way the system operates but in how the system handles the capacity of all the cases that come in. This is a statewide problem. Right now I have my council researching how the state has expanded the number of judges in various courts around the state. I believe that we have really trailed behind in this issue for the past couple of decades. We need to take a long-term look concerning additional judges, additional courtrooms, and additional staff to better handle the case loads we are getting in.

Goldstein: We see much youth on youth violence. How is your office working to prevent this and other acts of violence?

Johnson: We work with a group called E.A.R.S. (Effective Alternative Resolution Services) which runs a summer program where they teach young people how to talk to each other and train them to resolve disputes through words and not violence. They also work with gangs and even teach youth about dating violence.

Our office has a program called C.O.N.C.E.P.T. (Creating Opportunities Necessary to Create Empowered Positive Teens) that operate in middle schools where members of our Community Affairs Unit spend a semester going through a curriculum of issues that young people face. This curriculum covers topics like guns and drugs to homework and dating. It prepares them to have the ability to handle these types of situations.

Our staff is also involved in a Read to Me program that is in day care and preschool centers. We believe that reading and the ability to read increases opportunities later in life as well as giving children the self-esteem needed in their education. For high school students, we have a Trial Advocacy Program which teaches students how a criminal case is tried by going through a mock trial. It is fun but it also teaches them that people like them can end up in positions where they benefit the community. Our staff volunteers to be mentors to individual people as well.

The State Division of Parole, the Probation Department, the NYPD, and ourselves are starting a parolee call-ins program. It allows people coming out of prison to have someone to sit with them and explain what their options are now while giving them support to keep recurrences from happening.

Goldstein: What has your office been doing regarding perceived racism in the NYPD, be it overt or subliminal?

Johnson: Lawyers in our office have been invited to lecture at the academy on how to make decisions based on actions instead of simply appearance. I speak to every new recruit that has been assigned to the Bronx on their first day to explain to them how we serve the community. There are also joint trainings between assistants and officers to learn what the officers are observing from their expertise on the streets and they learn from us what we need in order to articulate to a judge whether a police action was justified.

Our assistants have the opportunity to ride along with police officers. It’s really educational and helps us learn why officers make the decisions that they do at the moment an investigation is happening. If you are there with them and ask them why they do something, it is very helpful in this issue.

I do not believe that the NYPD or that the court system is racist itself. But there are individuals that take wrong actions based solely on race. The mission is to get everyone trained in being able to act responsibly and fairly. On a patrol level, it is extremely diversified and a large amount of officers that work in the Bronx are from the Bronx. As this continues, I do believe that the inappropriate conduct will diminish.

Goldstein: After the Mike Brown case, I asked a young man in my building if he had a distrust for cops and felt afraid when seeing the police and he said yes. I, as a white person, no matter how hard I try, can’t feel the same way a black man feels when he sees the police. This is a huge problem. What are your views on this?

Johnson: The police department is aware of this and they are trying to make more of an effort to combat this issue. They are trying to interact in a friendlier way and have positive interactions with the community. But, the amount of people who have this viewpoint of that young man in your building has become too many. It is going to take some time to erode that mistrust.

Goldstein: Transgender people are often denied admission to the bathroom of their choice at restaurants and other public places. Have you received complaints? Are most restaurants aware of the law?

Johnson: Our office does not actually address those types of issues as we handle the criminal aspect of things. Unfortunately, we do see incidents of violence which we can prosecute based on the penalties of a hate crime. But in terms of the violation of civil rights, it is a civil wrong to deny someone the access to a public facility. That is for other agencies to address.

Goldstein: Do you plan to seek reelection in 2015?

Johnson: [Laughs.] There is the fact that I have an 11 year old son and two others that have to go to college, so I’m going to definitely run again if the community allows me too. I don’t know of any other job that compares to this in terms of having the ability to have positive results on the community. I love this job.

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