Since announcing his bid for a fifth term in January, Albany County District Attorney David Soares says he’s running on his record in June 23rd’s Democratic primary. Soares spoke with WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas.
Soares was first elected Albany County District Attorney in 2004 after winning a Democratic primary against DA Paul Clyne. Now, as he seeks a fifth four-year term, he faces his former employee: Matt Toporowski, who has touted endorsements from progressive groups, Bernie Sanders and musician John Legend.
Soares made a major policy change within the last few weeks, asking Governor Andrew Cuomo to appoint Attorney General Letitia James as special prosecutor in every criminal case where a police officer faces criminal charges or is accused of misconduct.
In 2018 Soares refused to recuse his office from investigating the Ellazar Williams case, an Albany man paralyzed by a police shooting.
He says he asked Cuomo back in 2015 to provide more clarity for prosecutors and law enforcement with Executive Order 147, and if the governor would not, Soares asked if all of the cases could be given to the Attorney General.
"What I announced the other day was in direct response to some of the discussions that I had been listening to on all the varieties of different news agencies that were covering the death, the unfortunate death of Mr. Floyd. And, while America as well as all of us should be talking about solutions to these issues, what I continue to hear over and over was the appearance of impropriety that local prosecutors have with alw enforcement. So, I reacted to that, and my reaction to that was 'let's move this issue off the table.' If in Albany County and the state of New York should Governor Cuomo decide to take that leadership and make us the first state to do that. If in the state of New York we were to do that, we wouldn't be having those conversations. And then the conversations we would be having would be more constructive."
In 2015, New York's highest court said it's up to the DA, not a city judge, whether to prosecute protesters charged with disorderly conduct as part of the Occupy Albany movement that gripped downtown four years earlier. Soares made headlines when he refused to prosecute more than 100 cases stemming from the protest. After the recent riot in downtown Albany, he affirms he will not prosecute peaceful protestors.
"I will prosecute people, however, that damage property, people that injure other people and people that injure police. And that's been my stance historically. In every single case involving protestors, that has been the policy. You can't be the chief law enforcement in Albany County, which is the seat of government, having people come and expecting their voices at the capitol as frequently as we have without such a policy. And so, my reputation is one where if you come here you're more than welcome to partake and exercise your first amendment. I encourage it. I love seeing democracy in action. However, I don't think anyone can tolerate those who take those opportunities to exploit peaceful protestors and begin engaging in violent behavior. That's not acceptable."
Of late Soares has been criticized by the Center For Law and Justice in Albany, which says the DA has not responded to its ongoing project focusing on structural racism, which stems from a survey on police-community relations. Soares says he is proud of his work with local civic groups...
"Pastor Traynham and the alliance he's developed at Alert. The 100 Black Men. A block at a time and Daniell Hille, who continues to engage in community and bring about a variety of complex issues emananting from the community to our attention. The issues that people in the community experience are complex and they're beyond the scope of what certain organizations focus themselves on. And quite frankly, my feeling is that what we need to do is have all of these organizations get together and engage in polling to address the variety of issues that people in the community are experiencing. And those polls should be more scientific."
Soares says he would welcome polling conducted by an outfit like the Siena College Research Institute.
When it comes to criticism that Soares doesn’t adequately support criminal justice reforms....
"The idea that someone could come along and claim that I'm either not forward-thinking enough is about as laughable as the premise itself. I think the one thing that people in Albany County do know is that I started my career as a reformer taking on antiquated archaic drug laws and since taking over it's been those alternatives to incarceration is my continued investment in providing resources, money, to programs in the inner city that specifically target those neighborhoods that are the most challenged. That is my reputation. My reputation amongst my colleagues, it's my reputation in the community. And after twenty years of that reputation, it's not going to be so easy for anyone to come along and attempt to besmirch the foundations that I've laid in this community. Nor can anyone erase the results of those various programs that I've implemented."
Soares says he has no plans to change his approach if marijuana isn't legalized this year. He looks forward to serving a fifth term.
"I've devoted my entire life to protecting community as well as building on smart reform to change our system. I am so proud of the work that my office, my staff, my partners, community partners have done, in order to bring our local jail population down, and by the way, also proved that we can do that and also have safer communities."