Manhattan U.S. Attorney Forms New Civil Rights Unit

Citing an increase in hate attacks, Damian Williams, the new US attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced on Friday the creation of a civil rights unit in the office’s criminal division during a ceremony at the Harlem Armory , signaling a new direction for one of the most powerful prosecution offices in the country.

“White supremacist groups are on the march,” said Williams, the first black person to hold the post. “Anti-Semitism is on the move. Anti-Asian violence is on the move. Abuses against the most vulnerable in our society are on the move. “

Enforcement of civil rights violations in the office has largely been handled by civil lawsuits rather than criminal charges. But at a time when calls for a review of how the justice system deals with issues of race and discrimination have increased, Williams said the creation of a civil rights unit within the criminal division office would elevate work and “make us more efficient.” “

Mr Williams, who was confirmed by the Senate last month, took office about 17 months after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer and the mass protests that followed in New York City and across the country calling him at the end of racism in the criminal justice system.

In recent years, the office has launched notable civil rights criminal prosecutions, such as the conviction of a Rikers correctional officer who fatally beat a critically ill prisoner while other guards held him down; and a federal hate crimes case against a man accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews – one victim, a rabbi, later died – at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, NY

But much of the office’s most high-profile civil rights work has been dealt with through lawsuits. In 2014, for example, the office investigated New York City into widespread civil rights violations in the treatment of adolescents detained at Rikers Island, which led to a settlement and a court-appointed observer.

Mr Williams said on Friday that other priorities would be gun violence and reconnecting with the communities served by his office. He said he would be “just as relentless” in prosecuting financial crimes.

“I use the word also, by the way, on purpose,” he added, “because I don’t think there should be a justice system for white collar crimes and another system of justice for blue collar crimes. “

Mr Williams’ remarks, amounting to a statement of principles and purposes, were unusual for a newly appointed US lawyer, although many who have held the post in recent decades have delivered speeches to community groups and sales representatives and spoke at press conferences to announce new cases. .

Sometimes referred to as “the Sovereign District” for its long-standing independence from Washington, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District has handled some of the country’s most complex and high-profile cases, including terrorism, financial crimes and the lawsuits that have reached former President Donald. The inner circle of J. Trump.

The office was rocked by turmoil during the Trump presidency. Two of its four previous top prosecutors have been sacked by the Trump administration. The New York Times also reported that Trump-era Attorney General William P. Barr and other officials attempted to interfere with critical affairs and investigations in the Southern District.

Mr Williams’ predecessor, Audrey Strauss, became the acting American lawyer in Manhattan last year after a chaotic 24 hours in which Mr Trump fired his predecessor, Geoffrey S. Berman, after Mr Barr had tried in vain to replace him with a political ally. .

Ms Strauss, Mr Berman and Joon H. Kim were among the former US lawyers in attendance on Friday, along with Preet Bharara, who was sacked from his post in March 2017 when he refused to resign.

In saluting them each, Mr. Williams made it clear in his comments that he too would defend the office. Quoting Mr. Berman, Mr. Williams said: “When the hour demanded true courage and true independence and a demonstration of what it means to be a Southern District Attorney in New York, it showed all of America. what that meant. “

At the ceremony, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland spoke about the founding of the Justice Department amid reconstruction and the role it played in confronting the Ku Klux Klan, and later protecting voting rights and the prosecution of civil rights violations and hate crimes. . He also commended Mr. Williams as a wise and humble colleague.

And he noted that prosecutors today face a range of threats, from white-collar crimes to violent crimes to domestic violent extremism.

“These threats, if left unanswered, will also undermine our democratic and economic institutions as well as our citizens’ support for the rule of law,” he warned.

In choosing to be sworn in at the Harlem Armory, Mr. Williams emphasized the Southern District’s connection to the historic building, which once housed the distinguished 369th Army Infantry Regiment, a regiment of 2,000 formed black soldiers. in 1916 who fought in World War I and became known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Hellfighters were commanded by Colonel William Hayward, a white lawyer who in 1921 was appointed United States Attorney for the Southern District. During his first few weeks in office, he hired James C. Thomas Jr., who had fought with the Hellfighters, as the office’s first black Assistant U.S. Attorney.

“The historic symbolism is incredible,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader who recommended Williams to the White House for the post of prosecutor and who also spoke at the event.

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