When Eric Holder was the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., he started a program that sent prosecutors into communities to get to know the residents and local law enforcement — ties that prove helpful when putting together criminal cases.
Fifteen years later, as Holder takes the helm of the Justice Department, his innovative program is still thriving.
The "community prosecutions" program assigns federal prosecutors to specific neighborhoods. They get out of the office and build relationships with members of the community. They get to know police, neighbors, hoodlums, witnesses — everyone. And hopefully their cases benefit as a result.
Today, Holder says the program is one of his proudest accomplishments from his time as D.C.'s chief federal prosecutor. More than half of the state and local law enforcement offices in the country do community prosecution. And in D.C., the initiative is as strong as ever.
"When the members of the community see me playing with their kids, they feel a lot more comfortable about our office as a whole rather than just the big bad prosecutor coming to lock them up," says Jelahn Stewart, an assistant U.S. attorney and the 4th District community prosecutor. "But then, when it comes to intelligence, the citizens are very willing to give us all kinds of information that really will prevent crime."
Giving The Community A Voice
For example, she says, when she was in the homicide section, she had a case that was "pretty much dead in the water." There were no witnesses, and she didn't think she could successfully prosecute anyone.
While she was interviewing a witness in a different case, she realized — because of her work in the community — that the witness lived on the same block as the homicide victim. Stewart recounts the story:
"So I just randomly asked her, I said, 'Do you know a person named Larry?' Larry was my decedent. And she said, 'Yeah, I know Larry.' And I said, 'Do you know where he is, how he's doing?' And she said, 'Well, he's dead.' I said, 'Really? What happened to him?' She said he got shot. I said, 'Who killed him?' She said Pierre shot him. I said, 'Really? How do you know?' 'Pierre told me, and he told me what he did with the gun.' And she also gave me a whole host of witnesses, and based on that one question I asked her because she lived in that block, I was able to successfully prosecute that case, and we actually got a conviction."
And it isn't just high-profile crimes like homicides. At a community meeting, prosecutors might learn that drug dealers are keeping kids out of a park. If the police catch someone with marijuana in that park, prosecutors will go after the case more aggressively because they know it's part of a bigger problem.
Then, when it comes time for sentencing, the prosecutor might show up at another community meeting. And Stewart will tell the neighbors to fill out a form explaining why they can't take their children to the park.
"Then I'll take the community impact statement and submit it to the judge at sentencing," Stewart says, "and the judge will actually take that into consideration when sentencing the defendant, so it gives the community a voice they wouldn't otherwise have if we weren't at the meetings."
Soft Power And Hard Power
One of the first people Holder tapped to be a community prosecutor was Albert Herring, who now oversees the community prosecutions program. While visiting a D.C. police station to talk with a group of students recently, Herring ran into one police officer after another whom he had befriended through the community prosecution program, including Officer Charles Robinson. They've known each other for about 18 years.
Robinson says Herring's role helps bridge the gap between the police department, the prosecutor and the community.
"He's more or less a people's person prosecutor," Robinson says. "You know, he gets down to the source, he wants to know. He gets in a neighborhood, he sees what's going on, he sees the ups and the downs in a neighborhood."
Herring tells the students at the police station that he wasn't always a convert to this way of thinking.
"I used to think that if we just arrested enough people and put enough people in jail, the kinds of problems we've been talking about would eventually go away," he says. "But I don't think that way anymore, because now I understand that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem."
The current U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., Jeff Taylor, who was appointed by President Bush, is a huge believer in the community prosecution program that Holder created.
"We have soft power, and we have hard power as prosecutors," Taylor explains. "Hard power is what people traditionally think prosecutors do — we prosecute cases; we put people in jail. But we can also make a difference in our communities by exercising this soft power.
It's a way of building relationships with the community they serve so that the next time they need a witness, or need to connect with the local detectives and officers, they can do so, he says.
"The community prosecution effort reflects a profound understanding that prosecutors are servants of the community," he says, "and that we're only effective in our job if we have the support of the community we serve."
Know The People, Know The Job
Roscoe Howard, who served as D.C.'s U.S. attorney earlier in the Bush administration and is now a lawyer in private practice, says he expects his friend Holder to apply these principles to his new job.
"I think that you'll see that Eric attacks a lot of problems from angles that we won't be used to," Howard says. "I think Eric comes from — I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but he comes from a different background than a lot of attorney generals would have come from in the past."
Being a minority, Holder is used to seeing issues in a different light compared with a nonminority, Howard says. "He's a New York City kid. He understands the urban life," he says.
And, Howard says, Holder has the philosophy that in order to know his job, he needs to know the people he serves.