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Manhattan DA Candidate Tahanie Aboushi: It’s Time to Reimagine the Criminal Justice System

Theodore Hamm Jun 26

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews The Indypendent will do with candidates running in the 2021 race for Manhattan District Attorney.

Criminal defense attorney Tahanie Aboushi has been in the media spotlight lately because she is representing Dounya Zayer, the activist whose assault by NYPD officer Vincent D’Andraia during a Black Lives Matter protest near Barclays Center in late May resulted in the Brooklyn District Attorney bringing criminal charges against the cop. 

We must invest in our communities with robust social services and move away from the model of punishment and control.

Aboushi is also one of five current contenders in next year’s race for Manhattan DA. It remains uncertain whether Cy Vance will seek a fourth term, although his lack of fundraising suggests that he does not plan to do so. 

A Palestinian American raised in Sunset Park, Aboushi is president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, of which her friend Linda Sarsour was a founder. She is also a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 10 in Harlem, where she lives.

Soon after the recent curfew was imposed earlier this month, Vance took a major step backward when he asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow accused looters to be held on bail at Rikers, rather than released, as per the 2019 bail reforms. How does this maneuver relate to the rest of Vance’s reign as DA? 

That move fits right into Vance’s tenure of upholding the system of mass incarceration and mass criminalization while displaying a facade of being progressive. Manhattan has had only four DAs over the past 80 years, with each one continuing the legacy of convicting at all cost without regard for the presumption of innocence or the impact on communities. 

While I was calling for Vance to decline to prosecute disorderly conduct charges, he was asking the governor to take advantage of the uprising to circumvent the already gutted bail reforms to hold people in pre-trial detention because he knew they would not be able to afford their freedom. 

Before he could assess the allegations, gather evidence and permit those accused to secure defense, he immediately concluded all were guilty. This means Vance preferred to find a way for that to be so instead of pursuing truth and justice.  

In the wake of the Minneapolis City Council’s initiative to disband its current police department, you expressed your support for the same to happen with the NYPD. Can you explain what would replace it?

We have been made to accept the false premise that the NYPD must be the only responders in pretty much every aspect of human life. They should not be. 

As a society, we must invest in our communities with robust social services and move away from the model of punishment and control. This means removing the NYPD from our schools, no longer relying on the NYPD to respond to calls of mental health distress, removing them from our homeless shelters and no longer tasking the NYPD with enforcing any public health directives. 

This over-policing criminalizes everyday life. We must instead invest in our communities, education, economic opportunity, mental health counselors and those trained to give help, not handcuffs. We should instead have an alternative first-responder system composed of public health experts that respond to situations involving poverty, mental illness or substance use disorder. 

Austin, Texas implemented a Crisis Intervention Team that responds to emergency calls involving mental health crises and diverts patients from the criminal justice system and connects them with mental health services in the community. Alternative models like the CIT help address the actual needs of society.  

What role would New York’s five DA’s play in that process? I’m assuming those offices would shrink (or be reorganized) as well.  

The DA must be independent from the NYPD. The DA works with the NYPD but not for it. That means holding law enforcement accountable for criminal misconduct. It also means establishing a direct line of contact with the community instead of funding law enforcement initiatives in the name of community policing, which gives money to the NYPD to engage the community with no strings attached. 

The DA must also decline to prosecute arrests that criminalize social inequities like homelessness, substance use disorder and poverty. The DA can use its funds to collaborate with community-based organizations to get people help instead of exacerbating the circumstance with prosecution and a criminal record. 

Also, diversion should take place in the Early Case Assessment Bureau (ECAB) before charges are brought. This means assessing the root cause of the alleged behavior and referring people to support services without penalty. The majority of arrests that are prosecuted end up dismissed. Why spend thousands of dollars and subject people to the destruction of the prosecution system only to end up dismissing a case? 

What does the Dounya Zayer case tell us about the current approach of the NYPD? 

Comdr. Craig Edelman of the 73rd Precinct has a reputation for hyper-aggressive policing and Officer Vincent D’Andraia has had several complaints made against him for similar abuses of power. The NYPD has not acknowledged this problem, nor have there been any attempts to rectify it. Allowing such behavior perpetuates a culture of aggressive policing in the name of public safety.

Theodore Hamm’s Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics is now available.

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