Speaking Truth to Power: A Q&A with Lehman Alum and NY Attorney General Letitia James

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This month, a Dallas federal court offered yet another reminder of how large New York State Attorney General and Lehman alum Letitia James ’82 looms on the national stage. There,  Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s chief officer, testified that he had secretly taken the organization into bankruptcy in an effort to circumvent James, who sued to dissolve the group amid corruption and mismanagement allegations last year.

James, of course, has proven difficult to ignore. Her case against the NRA is just one of a string of high-profile actions and investigations she’s launched since taking office in 2019. Among other things, she has also sued the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for using excessive force and making false arrests during peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and is overseeing the inquiry into sexual harassment charges against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

James recently reflected on her path to becoming New York’s top law enforcement official and holding powerful interests accountable in a talk with Lehman College President Daniel Lemons for the 51st annual Herbert H. Lehman Memorial Lecture. What follows is a condensed version of their talk; watch it in full above.

Lemons: I'd like to begin with a question about Lehman. You’re a graduate, but you were born and raised in Brooklyn. So what was it that drew you to Lehman College in the Bronx? And is there anything about your Lehman experience that you still draw upon in your career?

James: Well, first, Dr. Lemons and the Lehman community, thank you for inviting me here. It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you this evening. I was working at a law firm in Manhattan, as a working-class kid from a humble family, and I thought I wanted to be a social worker. In fact, [social work] is my first love. I saw a curriculum at Lehman College that suited me and my schedule, and that the College focuses on training working-class kids to go on to do great things. So I attended, and what I remember most is the 4 train, the D train, and walking down that hill during those cold winter nights. I also remember the architecture—the magnificent architecture at Lehman made you feel special and celebrated. It made you feel that you were walking amongst kings and queens and people of nobility.

And it uplifted me and uplifted so many others to know that we were in an institution where one could exchange ideas, debate the issues of the moment, and learn from scholars.... Lehman and the entire CUNY system are filled with people who are just as smart as individuals who graduated from the Ivy Leagues. ... The main difference is that many of us were the first in our families to go to college, and it takes a special type of person to overcome challenges in their life. You can’t teach that kind of experience in an Ivy League college—you learn it by walking down hills from trains on cold winter nights. And that’s what I learned about Lehman College.

Lemons: I love that description of the College you just gave, and I've heard that often. It's kind of an oasis in a way, right? It's a little bit of a world unto its own that's in the city, that’s in the Bronx. You walk through those gates, and you’re in a different space.

James: You are. It's a jewel in the rough, but it prepares you to deal with the rough and tumble world that we live in. So I thank the teachers and the professors, and when I visit Lehman College these days, not much has changed.

Lemons: You said in the past that your body of work is really about, and I’m quoting here, “standing up, fighting back, and challenging power.” You’re not only speaking truth to power—you’re holding power accountable. Where does that spirit of fearlessness come from? Is that something you always had? 

James: You know, I hail from Brooklyn, but I cut my teeth in the Bronx, and I come from a very large family. When challenges come your way and you overcome them, it builds a sense of character and puts steel in your backbone. ... And so, whether it’s running for public office or traveling from Brooklyn to the Bronx to attend college and then working in Manhattan, it takes courage. It takes the belief that your dream can become a reality, that you have a place in society, and that you too can become the first woman of color elected citywide. The first [African-American woman] elected statewide. That you too can become the chief law enforcement officer for the state of New York.

In my professional life, being fearless is the only way that you really can deliver justice for those who’ve been locked out of the sunshine of opportunity, speak truth to power, and challenge the status quo—particularly when you’ve witnessed in your own home and in your community humble individuals who work every day but can’t pay their bills and are facing eviction or displacement. Individuals who work every day and, unfortunately, cannot put enough food on their table to fill it, to feed their children. It’s individuals like that who inspire you, it’s individuals like that who you want to champion, and it’s individuals like that, whose stories you want to tell.

All throughout my career, I’ve been a check on power—whether it be in the tech industry, the pharmaceutical industry, [or] dealing with the opioid epidemic during these last four years under a previous administration whose values, unfortunately, were inconsistent with my own. Individuals who believe in profit over people—it’s all of those things and more that I’ve taken to heart and decided to challenge. I decided to hold them accountable on behalf of the individuals who are invisible to you and me but who serve us each and every day and deserve dignity and respect and to be protected by the rule of law.

Lemons: Robert Caro was the Rudin lecturer at City College a few weeks ago—he's the author of The Power Broker and those famous biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson. During the course of that lecture, he was asked, “Does a politician have to be ruthless to accomplish what needs to be accomplished?” What are your thoughts about that?

James: No, I don't think it's necessary in order to be involved and to be successful in politics that one has to be ruthless. That term rarely comes up. One is aggressive. One has sharp elbows. One is confident in their position. One is firm. One is intentional. I don't know about ruthlessness because when one tends to be ruthless, what goes around, comes around, and what we are seeing in the world of politics these days is that when you step on people, they remember.

I tend to kill you with kindness. I believe in the art of persuasion, and I believe in appealing to your heart and humanity and painting a picture of what is actually happening on the ground. And trying to get you to be a little bit more sympathetic or empathetic about the conditions of individuals struggling each and every day who need champions for justice, champions for righting wrongs. 

Lemons: In an interview with New York magazine, you said that there are a whole lot of individuals who want to tear down the system, but you want to reform it. That was 2018. The Independent Democratic Caucus has come to an end, and New York City or New York state politics have changed a bit since then. What's your thinking now about reforming the system, as opposed to sort of more dramatic changes?

James: So, let's talk about the criminal justice system. … What has been laid bare during this pandemic are the systemic inequities, healthcare disparities, racial injustice, and economic woes that have disproportionately befallen women and people of color. In the criminal justice space, I’ve been involved in a number of instances where I've witnessed police abuse, and I’d heard instances of police abuse before body-worn cameras and before citizen journalists with their cameras and their phones. People of color, particularly Black people, have known about mistreatment and abuse by police officers for a very long time.

There's been a lot of talk in the aftermath of George Floyd and demands for defunding the police and abolishing the police. I come from a different viewpoint. I recognize and understand the history of policing in this country, from slave codes to the Black codes to Jim Crow, to civil rights, to the war on drugs, to stop and frisk, to broken windows, and, now, to mass protest and an inability to respond to mass protest. I understand the over-policing of communities of color, and I also know that training is really not going to get to the bottom of it.

But I do know that during the civil rights movement, it took more than just one protest to bring about change. The civil rights movement did not happen over one year or even over two years—there was a period of time. The Montgomery bus boycott did not last a day, it lasted an entire year. And so change takes time. Change takes time, and in the criminal justice space, a lot can be done. Yes, we can look at qualified immunity, we can look at diversifying the force, we can look at leadership. Yes, we can look at perhaps removing all of the power in the hands of one individual, the police commissioner, when it comes to discipline. Yes, it requires more transparency and accountability. Yes, CCRB [the Civilian Complaint Review Board] needs to have teeth. All of this and more. And so I am not one to defund the police but to redirect it. Reinvest it. To not criminalize poverty or mental illness and remove some responsibilities from the police because they do too much. We rely upon them too much, and they are poorly trained.

So, I don't know about defunding—I would use another term. And I don't know about tearing down the police, because they have a function. But I do believe that we, all of us, should look at re-inventing policing in our society, and everyone should be at the table, including individuals who have lost loved ones at the hands of police. So, no, I'm not for tearing down systems, I'm for building them up, reforming them, and for re-engineering parts of a civil society.

Lemons: Right now, New York municipal police departments have been asked to do an analysis of their policing. Do you think that's a helpful first step? Is that more symbol than it is reality? What are your thoughts on that?

James: My office is charged with working with the administration—we are analyzing a number of these reforms and reports that have been submitted. So, unfortunately, I'm not really in a position to comment on the executive order because we are reviewing a number of those recommendations going forward. Some of them I support. You know, I was one of the first elected officials to call for body-worn cameras. Following the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, I went to court when I was the public advocate to release the grand jury minutes because concealing the grand jury minutes or the grand jury process, I believe, is anachronistic. … It cries out for more transparency because civilians need to know what happens behind closed doors and there's just too much room for abuse by prosecutors who have a very close relationship with police.

That's why, when it comes to police abuse and individuals who lose their lives at the hands of police, it's important that we have an independent prosecutor, such as an attorney general—and other states should follow. I'm hoping that Congress passes the George Floyd bill so that attorney generals are in a position to investigate killings at the hands of police. It’s critically important that attorney generals all across this country can engage in pattern and practice investigations. I hope that Congress passes this bill. I'm just concerned about what's happening in the Senate and, unfortunately, the filibuster, and whether or not the votes are there.

Lemons: Let me shift gears a little bit. In the life of an elected official, there are ups and downs in public perception. At the moment, you're up: A recent Quinnipiac poll had you at the highest job approval of any elected official in New York—61 percent. That was a full 9 percent more than the next person, who I think was Senator Schumer, and the same as the president, which is saying something because he's got a very high approval rating right now. Why do you think that right now you're resonating so strongly with New Yorkers?

James: You know, I don't pay much attention to polls. … One day you're up, next day you're down. Some elected officials were riding really high during this pandemic, and now there are calls for them to be removed. So I don't really pay much attention to polls, to be honest with you. What I care more about are results.

And for me, it's during the last four years and the last two years where I have served as an attorney general during a period of great confusion and chaos, defending the state of New York. I can't believe that a woman of color, a Black woman, was defending states' rights, but I was.

The Trump administration, each and every day, engaged in these regressive policies—changing regulations and the law on the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the energy that we all consume … and using COVID-19 as an excuse to deny women reproductive health and to take away our right to choose. From the Muslim ban, which literally went into effect several days after I was elected, to the separation of children at the border, to public charge, which unfortunately changed the way that immigrants can get public assistance in the state, to having New York designated as an anarchist state, which prevented us from applying for certain grants to denying us the right to deduct state and local tax. The list goes on and on and on…. And every day, we went to battle, and we won 85 percent of the cases against that administration. We stopped him right in this tracks to the point where he knew my name.

So I'm not concerned about polls. It was like, okay, we've got to take action against this. He rolled back this today. Let's take action. We've got to do this today. Let's file a motion. We have to make a statement. I've got a wonderful team, and we were continuing to do our constitutionally mandated work. We also had to keep our eye on what was happening in Washington and how it impacted the citizens of the great state of New York. And we had to stand there, and basically use a shield and a cover over vulnerable and marginalized populations. We did, and I would argue that New York and California were the bookends across this nation in defending our democracy. Attorney general [Xavier] Becerra, who’s now the secretary of [health and human services], was my partner. We did a damned good job. I just had to wait every day until 12 o'clock to call because of the time.

Lemons: I'm going to come back to something that you mentioned earlier, the police response to demonstrators. In January, you filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan against the NYPD, Mayor de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, [and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan], seeking injunctive relief and a federal monitor to oversee the department's future mass demonstration responses. This is the first time I think, in history that a state attorney general has sued the police department. Tell us how you and your staff decided to do that, what reaction you’ve gotten in the community and from the police department, and what's the status of that lawsuit.

James: I worked under previous attorney general Eliot Spitzer when we investigated the NYPD for stop and frisk. There was not litigation, but we issued a report and entered into a settlement with NYPD with respect to that practice. And that practice has been significantly reformed as a result of our investigation and findings, as well as litigation that was filed by others. It's impossible to deny that the NYPD, unfortunately, mishandled and is poorly trained when it comes to dealing with mass protests. There's no denying it. There's no dispute. It's been confirmed by their own department of investigation, corporation counsel, and now an inspector general—all of them have confirmed what we know is true. They were poorly trained and ill prepared to deal with mass protests dating back to the Republican convention in New York, as well as Occupy Wall Street.

And we all witnessed it. We witnessed them engaging in a technique known as kettling, where they basically contain protesters and do not allow them to exit and then engage in mass arrests. During the period where individuals had to be home by a certain time, they, unfortunately, arrested essential workers who [the city said] were not subject to the curfew. They arrested legal observers, and based on an executive order issued by the mayor of the City of New York, they too were exempt from the curfew. But they were arrested nonetheless. We saw them use pepper spray. We saw them use their batons. We saw them use their vehicles. We saw individuals engage in conduct that was not appropriate, not professional, and certainly not respectful. Nothing exhibiting the CPR [the NYPD’s motto, which stands for courtesy, professionalism, respect] that they market.

So we had to file litigation against all of these individuals because under the doctrine known as parens patriae, we are chief law enforcement officer, and as parents, if you will, over New York City residents, caretakers over New York City residents, the common law gives us the ability to file these lawsuits whenever there is a violation of the first and the 14th amendment.

We are currently in court. We are seeking a monitor—not a federal monitor, but a monitor—to basically work with to devise practices and procedures on dealing with mass protest. We held hearings over a three-day period where we heard from 100 protestors who came forward with video, with evidence, and with oral testimony, and they described their conditions. They told us about the blatant use of excessive force, including the indiscriminate, unjustified, and repeated use of batons and pepper spray, as I mentioned. And, you know, it was damning. The police commissioner Dermot Shea did testify, and his testimony stood in stark contrast to that of the protesters.

And what we found based upon that three-day hearing, based upon a review of the evidence both online as well as the evidence that was submitted to us by the protesters, and all of the other individuals who submitted evidence who did not testify, we found that NYPD unlawfully detained and arrested legal observers and medics and other workers performing essential services without probable cause and in direct violation of the executive order from the mayor of the City of New York.

The case is pending right now—we are in the pleading process. And I want to make myself very clear: I will defend the first amendment, the right to peacefully protest, and there is no room for police abuse and/or excessive force in the City or the State of New York. I am not anti-police. I've got family members and friends [who are officers], and I respect the police. I've been to a number of funerals for officers who have died in the line of duty. I just want to make sure that the police know that no one is above the law. And that includes the most powerful individual in this country, the president of the United States, as well as men and women of NYPD.

Lemons: To come back to policing, what are your thoughts about social workers involved in deescalating situations?

James: Obviously, we need social workers to take on some of the responsibilities of the police. One thing I did not talk about as the attorney general—and this is the area that I work on that I like the least—is investigating police-involved deaths.

During these last two and a half years as attorney general, I've had to investigate quite a few. In fact, you may have read about the case I was involved in, in Rochester—Daniel Prude, someone who was in the throes of mental illness. Someone who was, unfortunately, high on PCP, running through the streets of Rochester in the middle of the winter, in the midst of a slight snowstorm, naked, sweating profusely, and covered with blood. And his brother called the Rochester police.

What his brother wanted was medical assistance for Daniel Prude. Unfortunately, he did not get that. What he got was this technique known as segmenting where the police officers are on your back, and you’re prone. Unfortunately, because he was exerting a lot of energy because he had just been running and because PCP elevated his heart rate, and because that technique contributed obviously to his heart rate, all of those factors led to his death.

We charged the grand jury in Rochester. They came back with a no true bill; they did not indict. There were protests in Rochester, but that has happened over and over again. In fact, the vast majority of the cases that we've had to investigate involved individuals who were on drugs, suffering from excited delirium and [a rapid] pulse rate, and they died as a result of police interaction and police mishandling them. In the Daniel Prude case, the other factor was they put a spit hood over his head, which further aggravated the situation.

Most of the cases, again, [have the] same fact pattern. The police overreact. They don't deescalate, they don't step back. They don't allow social workers to come in and/or medics.  They engage in this physical altercation, and they exert physical force as opposed to, again, conversation, communication, lowering their voice, giving them blankets … and just appealing to them and surrounding them so they don't hurt themselves. That's just not what happens because police officers are not trained to deal with individuals who are in the throes of mental illness, and each and every time it has resulted in deaths. And that's the most difficult aspect of my work. So, yes, social workers need to be embedded with police. They need to be first responders, and they need to deal with individuals who unfortunately are suffering from drug addiction, mental illness, and excited delirium.

Lemons: This question is kind of a follow-up on Rochester and what appears to be something fairly deeply amiss–you know, maybe a racist school district, maybe a racist police department. How do you address that? How do you address that kind of deeply embedded racism that—maybe we shouldn't single out Rochester because that's the case in front of you.

James: No, we should single out Rochester.

Lemons: Or perhaps we shouldn’t single out Rochester alone.

James: Right, for the purposes of this conversation. They've been in the newspaper quite a bit. A nine-year-old child was pepper sprayed. A woman with a baby was pepper sprayed. Another person who was suffering from mental illness died at the hands of police. And then you've got Daniel Prude. You've got a police department, which is overwhelmingly white in a county [that] is majority Black. Something is amiss in Rochester when it comes to policing so we need to look at training, we need to look at the police force, we need reforms. And we need to be honest about it. We need to move away from all of this physical force and focus more on communication, community policing, respect for the dignity of all life, Black, white, Latino, and Asian altogether. That's what we need.

Lemons: You've mentioned training a number of times this evening, and I know that that frequently is put forward as one of our solutions. What do you think makes it effective? We talk about different kinds of bias, but what about the idea of taking it on a little more head-on and just saying we need anti-racist training? What are your thoughts about training?

James: We need to embrace unconscious bias—that needs to be incorporated in our training. If you look at police departments internationally, NYPD only receives six months of training. There are some departments in other countries where it's a year and then an internship where you’re embedded with the police. Qualified immunity is a major issue. You know, unions—and I am a proud union person, but PBA [the Police Benevolent Association] is not interested in reform and/or progress. They stand in the way of reform because, within their collective bargaining agreement, all of these issues and more are part of the collective bargaining, when collective bargaining historically has just been used to negotiate wages and working conditions. But they've expanded it.

So expanded training, unconscious bias, you know, yes, we need to talk about racism. We need to talk about the history of racism. We need to talk about the history of policing, which is embedded in racism, going back to the slave trade, the slave code, Black code, et cetera. All of that and more. We obviously need a force that is diversified and that includes women. Right now in New York, it’s primarily a majority-minority department. [Or] the rank and file is majority-minority. Once you get past a certain level, it's predominantly white leadership positions—captain, sergeant, all of those positions are predominantly held by white individuals. But I think the number of women is a single-digit percentage. If I'm not mistaken, I think it's less than 10 percent, maybe slightly more. We need more women because, with all due respect, Mr. President, we approach things differently. We govern differently. You know, in countries that are led by women, the infection rate is real low. In countries that are led by women the number of police incidents are low. In countries led by women, people live longer. Maybe there's something to this feminine mystique.