On Tuesday night in East Harlem, a man named Tyrone Howard allegedly fired a single shot at NYPD officer Randolph Holder, striking him in the head and killing him. Holder’s death is a tragedy, and despite what New York City mayor Bill de Blasio would have you believe, it has nothing whatsoever to do with prison reform.
Last year, Howard was arrested as part of a drug bust at the East River Houses public housing project. Rather than go to trial, he took a plea deal that would allow him to avoid jail time if he completed an 18-month drug treatment program. Howard’s attorney cited his client’s addiction to PCP when requesting the program in May, and Judge Edward McLaughlin approved, noting that he had no prior convictions for violent crimes on his record. (Commentators have pointed out that Howard was arrested in connection to a shooting in 2009, but they’ve generally failed to mention that he wasn’t convicted.)
Mayor Bill de Blasio and others seem to blame that diversion from jail for officer Holder’s death. Howard, apparently a gang member, “sure as hell shouldn’t have been on the streets,” de Blasio said last night; he was a “a poster boy for not being diverted,” NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton echoed. They were joined by a chorus of voices with whom they don’t always find themselves ideologically aligned: Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News all expressed their anger that Howard hadn’t been locked up for last year’s drug arrest. News columnist Mike Lupica was particularly bilious, writing, “The idea that Howard was somehow going to be rehabilitated by a drug program is dumber than any sidewalk or street corner of the city that produced his own dumb, worthless life.”
Certainly, if anyone knew Howard would go on to kill a cop, he would have been sentenced to jail. But it would not have made a lick of difference on Tuesday night. After his drug arrest, Howard posted $35,000 bail, meaning that if he had opted to go to trial instead of pleading guilty and taking the diversion program, he would have been a free man until his court date, which was scheduled for later this month. He would have been on the street firing at officer Holder whether he was placed in rehab or not. Critics have also seized upon a September gang shooting in which Howard was allegedly involved as evidence that the judge should not have diverted him, but that incident would have been similarly unaffected by a prison sentence.
The city hurts and searches for answers whenever an officer is shot down in the line of duty, and it’s easy to blame the judge who took mercy on a drug addict who appeared in his courtroom five months ago. But if gun violence and the addiction and poverty that so often surround it are going to be reduced in New York, we need more sentences like the one Howard was given, not fewer.
The alleged cop killer appears to have dived headlong into violent crime as soon as he was granted a reprieve from jail time, but his case is the exception, not the rule. Treatment programs for substance abusers like him have been shown to be effective, over and over, both in reducing the likelihood of recidivism and in helping the offender avoid relapsing into addiction. In other words, when someone is diverted from jail, he or she is less likely to go out and commit another crime. A drug addict who goes to rehab comes out more willing to participate in lawful society than one who goes to prison.
“I know I made the right decision. I don’t get a crystal ball when I get a robe. If I wanted to avoid being in the papers I could probably accomplish that by doing nothing but decisions designed to give myself cover and excuses,” Judge McLaughlin said, admirably, when the Post questioned him about his decision. “I don’t know. I hope other judges don’t act that way.”
It is not surprising that Lupica and the Post, reliable supporters of the law enforcement status quo, would use the opportunity to take up an argument against jail diversion programs. More troubling are the cries against these programs from Bratton, de Blasio, and Vance. Just yesterday, the NYPD commissioner and the Manhattan DA publicly aligned themselves with Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a promising new group of high profile cops and prosecutors aimed at promoting alternatives to jail. De Blasio, a mayor who was elected on a platform of law enforcement reform, surely knows the benefits of such programs well.
De Blasio has a good reason to appear as tough as he can on cop killers this week. When NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in cold blood last year, the police department and much of the city blamed its mayor, who has a reputation in law enforcement circles as being soft on crime, or even anti-police. But those who blamed the mayor were wrong then, and they’d be wrong to do so now.
The city, and its leader, have a right and a duty to search for answers in the wake of another officer’s murder. But in our searching, we cannot abandon reason.