Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson pulled off an upset earlier this month when he defeated a six-term incumbent to become the district attorney of New York City’s largest borough.
In the days leading up to the Sept 10 primary, Thompson was locked in a two-man race against Republican Charles J. Hynes, who’d already secured his place on the ballot in the general election. Thompson won 55 percent of the vote the night of the primary. Rather than continue to campaign until November, Hynes announced he would drop out of the race, leaving Thompson as the last man standing.
The race isn’t quite over for Thompson, however. Despite conceding the race, as a formality, his opponent’s name will still appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. Thompson is still engaged in get-out-the-vote efforts to ensure his supporters also show up on Election Day and cast a vote in his favor.
If that support holds, he’ll push aside more than 100 years over history, marking the first time a challenger defeated a sitting DA in Brooklyn since 1911 and making Thompson the first black district attorney in Brooklyn, a jurisdiction that is nearly 36 percent black.
It was an often-contentious race centered on Hynes’ lengthy record, which included overturned convictions and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct during his tenure. Thompson ran in contrast as a champion for the underdog in the justice system with “experience that matters.”
As a federal prosecutor, Thompson helped secure the conviction of officers in one of the most highly publicized police brutality cases in New York’s history – the 1997 attack on Abner Louima. For the past 10 years, however, Thompson has worked as a private attorney in his own firm and taken on jobs like the reopening of investigations into the death of Emmett Till and, most recently, representing Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper who claimed she was sexually assaulted by the head of International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
TheGrio spoke with Ken Thompson to discuss his upbringing in Brooklyn, his position on the NYPD’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy and his plan to promote fairness in the Brooklyn DA’s office.
theGrio: You said along the campaign trail that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office was in crisis, with a lot of bad decisions being made. Can you talk more about what the legacy of the Brooklyn DA has been? How do you plan to change it?
Ken Thompson: Well, I can’t really go into the legacy. You have to speak to other folks about that. I can tell you the changes that I intend to make. One of the main changes I’m going to make is, I’m going to make sure that the people who work for me know that the fundamental role of the DA is to do justice and we cannot have innocent people going to prison for murders that they didn’t commit. We must make sure that the people of Brooklyn are safe on the streets and safe in their homes but also that the criminal justice system is fundamentally fair towards everyone and that the people who come into the criminal justice system belong in the criminal justice system. And that’s my pledge. That’s my commitment. I am raising a young family with my wife in Brooklyn. My daughter Kennedy is nine. My son Kenny is six. I want to do all I can to make sure that all the neighbors in Brooklyn are safe for our children and for our families and so for me this is a very important, extremely important responsibility that I’ve been given by the people of Brooklyn and I intend to serve them as Brooklyn DA With honor and distinction.
You’ve said before in interviews that you’re for stop-and-frisk if it’s done the right way. Tell me, how does a constitutionally sound and effective stop-and-frisk policy look?
It looks like a stop that is based on reasonable suspicion. The Supreme Court has made it clear that a law enforcement officer can stop someone and question them on the streets in this country if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that the person has committed a crime, is in the process of committing a crime or is about to commit a crime. That’s the standard in order for them to stop someone. In order for them to frisk the person who’s been stopped, according to the Supreme Court, the law enforcement officer must believe that the person is armed and dangerous and poses a threat to their lives. They must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person who was stopped is armed and dangerous. And that suspicion can’t be based on a hunch. It has to be based on something objective such as a bulge in a shirt or the handle of a gun.
If stop-and-frisk is based on those standards, based on reasonable suspicion, I will support it. I want to do all I can to get the guns off the street. I want to support the police. I intend to support the police. I intend to also support the community so when I say reasonable suspicion, that’s what the basis is and we cannot have tens of thousands of young, black, Latino men stopped and frisked on the streets of Brooklyn without reasonable suspicion. What that does is it undermines the very important relationship that we must have between the community and the police. Without that, we’re all in trouble. The NYPD has a saying: If you see something, say something. Well, people in certain parts of Brooklyn feel alienated from the police. If they see something, they’re not going to say something and we have to change that.