Je suis

The dust is settling as the Bronx Defenders’ Executive Director, Robin Steinberg, begins a 60 day suspension and two staffers look for new jobs.  But before we close the book on this topic, perhaps we should think about our own reactions to what occurred.

As public defenders, we often stand up for people who have engaged in conduct with which we disagree.  We try to put things in context, and emphasize that one thoughtless or misguided act does not define a person.  We highlight our clients’ positive past acts, and emphasize the importance of their lack of intent to do something harmful.  We constantly deal with the politics of indigent defense, including efforts to defund our offices.  We deal with others’ distaste for what we do.  We are constantly in conflict with police and prosecutors, many of whom would like to see us and our offices eliminated.

When a heroic figure like Jami Tillotson becomes national news, we band together in support, recognizing the courage it took for her to literally put herself in harm’s way, allowing herself to be arrested as an officer violated her client’s rights.  We proudly declare, “Je suis Jami.”

But what happens when one of us, or one of our sister agencies, does something wrong?  Do we walk away, fearful that the broad brush that often wrongly paints us as incompetent will wash away the reputations and relationships we work so hard to attain? 

That is the question we as defenders across the country faced, as a cutting edge, innovative, client centered office faced national condemnation for some staff members’ participation in a music video that featured an inflammatory image and some lyrics suggesting there ought to be payback for police officers who kill unarmed black men.  As we all now know, the office was the Bronx Defenders, a contract agency that provides indigent defense to residents of the Bronx in New York City.  Day in and day out, that office deals with some of the toughest work defenders can do.  A chart showing the crime statistics for the last few weeks can be found here.

On February 4, 2015, the Board of Directors of the Bronx Defenders and the Bronx Defenders issued a letter describing action that would be taken in response to the incident.  In addition to the disciplinary action, the letter described reform measures that would include a re-evaluation of policies and procedures.  The letter  noted that the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services would be conducting a “Capacity Building and Oversight review of the Bronx Defenders.”  Additional training would be implemented. 

There  have been calls to defund the office and fire the staff members.  Some of those calling for the harshest sanctions  were prosecutors and police.  The New York Times reported, “(I)n a statement, the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, deemed those steps ‘insufficient.’  The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association went further, demanding that the Bronx Defenders be shut down.”

I am hoping, as we as defenders always do with our clients, that those in a position to influence the future of the office, its staff, and its director, Robin Steinberg, will keep this incident in context.  I hope that those making decisions about future funding, staffing and perhaps even errors of judgment will recognize that one thoughtless or misguided act does not define a person or an agency.  I hope they recall the positive history of the organization and the staff – who represent the mentally ill, the abused, the neglected, the addicted, the guilty and the innocent – and who come forward each day to stand up for people that others seek to avoid.  I hope they recognize that the staffers involved did not intend to endorse violence, but to stand with the community they represent during an especially dark time.   They were naïve.  They clearly misjudged the politics of indigent defense, race relations and problems between the New York City Police Department and Mayor DeBlasio. I hope that those members of police agencies and prosecutor offices who take aim at defenders every day do not use this incident to mischaracterize the great work done for many years by the Bronx Defenders. 

It is easy to stand with Jami Tillotson.  What do we, as a community, do in this situation?  Can we stand up for our brother and sister defenders as we do each day for our clients?