Rollins: ‘heartbroken, furious, and completely exhausted’

Racism is not just country’s original sin, but its ‘mutating virus’

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins sent the following letter on June 1 to the staff in her office.

Dear SCDAO Community,

I wanted to address you sooner about the brutal murder of George Floyd by the police, but I was too raw and emotional. Even a week later, I am all at once heartbroken, furious, and completely exhausted. I know there is an expectation that the person sitting in my seat is always reserved and measured. But honestly, I can’t even pretend right now. Not in this moment.

I didn’t sleep much last night. As I was bombarded by images of protestors kneeling in solidarity for their fallen brothers and sisters, and police cars burning in downtown just minutes from our office, I find myself with more questions than answers. How do we truly begin to heal the tension between police officers and the communities of color that view them as a potential threat rather than public servants? Who was damaging property as an expression of unbearable pain and frustration, and who were the opportunistic outsiders attempting to co-opt that catharsis? How does this keep happening? Why don’t things change? When will the media get bored of the coverage and move on to something else? What does that mean for a movement where the stakes are truly life and death?

I have trouble coming up with answers to those questions or perhaps I have trouble facing the likely answers to those questions. When I am at a loss for words, I often look to men and women who made a living at choosing the right words at a difficult time.

James Baldwin is one of those thinkers I rely on. He once wrote: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

I find those words to be particularly poignant today.

There were at least three demonstrations yesterday, one led by Black youth. Those demonstrations were powerful, moving, and peaceful. By nightfall, some turned their outrage into violence against police cars and downtown businesses. I do not condone these acts. I do wonder, however, why we tend to focus more on violence against property and not violence against human beings. If we care about the first, we must be outraged by the latter. Violence against all human beings – those perpetrated by the police and against the police – is unacceptable and will be prosecuted. We cannot honor George Floyd – a victim of violence – by perpetuating more violence. That does not honor his memory. But for all of those calling for peace, I ask: what are you doing for justice?

This is the time for bold leadership and big actions.

For some of you, it may seem like all of a sudden, we are in the middle of a national crisis. In a short period of time, we bore witness to the heinous murders of several black victims – George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor – by police and people empowered to kill. These executions were not the only trauma in the recent news cycle. Just ask Christian Cooper and Omar Jimenez.

Those of us who live in Black and Brown skin know that this is not a sudden crisis. There is nothing new here. Unfortunately, this is routine. We are exhausted because we have lived in a near constant state of emergency since before we were even born. The genesis of our profound harm and intergenerational trauma did not start last week when George Floyd was executed by the police. It did not start when Amy Cooper, dripping with entitlement and privilege, lied to the police and weaponized bias claiming an African American man was threatening her in Central Park. No. It started centuries ago.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

We must confront our past in order to build a more just and equitable future. We need to do the work. We need to have honest and uncomfortable conversations.

Racism is not only this country’s original sin; it is its mutating virus. We went from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration and police brutality. Racism is not a product of a few bad apples; it’s a result of carefully crafted systems that were designed to control, monitor, and punish Black and Brown bodies.

It is the result of white supremacy built into every institution that governs our lives. It is the failure of anti-racism. Few would call themselves racist, and yet there is so much inequality all around us.

Herein lies the complication and the opportunity: I am not just a Black woman who has been impacted by racism and racial disparities. I am your elected District Attorney. The recent events bring to the forefront the intersection of racism and law enforcement. As a Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office community we all have a role in addressing this crisis because we have committed to serving the victims in Suffolk County, who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown. We are also a part of a larger criminal legal system that disproportionately impacts poor, Black and Brown people. As President Obama wrote, “[I]t falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station – including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day – to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”

The experiences of those in this office are vast and different, thus making conversations about what the country is facing at this time difficult, uncomfortable, and scary for some. Nonetheless, these conversations must be had. Communities across the country, including the one we work in, are demanding justice, accountability, and change. We must do what is right, even when it isn’t easy.

Today we are having this meeting not only to start the difficult conversation and acknowledge the feelings and reactions that are erupting nationally, but also to recognize that this can have a unique impact on you as members of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. We are part of the law enforcement community and continue to have a responsibility to do our part to dismantle white supremacy within the systems and institutions we work in.

We have been doing this since the beginning of my administration. For example, the Rollins Memo and the Do Not Prosecute list were intended in part to minimize contact and interactions between Black and Brown members of our community and the police, which can escalate quickly and fatally as we saw with George Floyd. This policy was designed to reduce tension between our community and law enforcement, to avoid opportunities for escalations, and to allow law enforcement resources to be focused on addressing the serious and violent crimes that have the most devastating impact on our communities overall, and Black and Brown communities in particular. An extension of this latter goal is evidenced by the creation of PUSH (Project for Unsolved Suffolk Homicides), through which we are working to rebuild trust with our communities by letting them know that every homicide matters and no victim—or family—is forgotten. We created the first-in-the-nation Discharge Integrity Team (an external team that includes a community member, a criminal defense lawyer and a retired judge, each working directly with me in officer-involved shootings and excessive force claims) and Integrity Review Bureau, both of which are efforts to create internal accountability, for ourselves and our law enforcement partners. Finally, we put significant resources into making our Community Engagement Bureau, our Victim Witness Assistance Program, our Juvenile Alternative Resolution Program, and our Restorative Justice Program more robust; each of these initiatives is a way of building relationships with our communities by allowing us to serve outside of the courtroom or the traditional prosecution model.

While I’m proud of what we have done already, I know we can do more. In response to what is occurring we will continue to improve how victims can be heard and have access to our office. We will use data to track and improve equity in our policies and practices. Having created the most diverse executive team this office has ever had, we will develop an equity-based recruitment strategy that will continue to increase the diversity of our entire workforce. We will increase staff knowledge of core constructs, such as race and ethnicity, and build our capacity for cultural competency and empathy. And we will hold space for our Black and Brown colleagues to react and create opportunities for other members of our teams to learn or practice being good allies. We begin tomorrow by facilitating a circle to give those who want a forum to either listen or reflect.

Our core values are: be brave, help heal, respect everyone, serve humbly, and work smart. This moment represents an opportunity for us to live those values. Being brave is having difficult conversations because all real and significant growth hurts. Helping heal is supporting each other and colleagues who may be deeply affected by what is happening. Respecting everyone is suspending your ego and defensiveness, and resisting the urge to comfort yourself with platitudes like “you don’t see race” or “all lives matter”; it is listening with an open heart and mind to the distress of Black people and trying to learn, empathize, and do better. Serving humbly is remembering that despite privilege or opportunities afforded, we serve with compassion and we seek understanding. Finally, working smart is creating opportunities to proactively address racism, injustices, and the potential impacts they may have in our work.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

We must face this reality if we want to build a new normal. I am committed to facing this challenge as an office. If you need support, have concerns, or want resources, please let us know. I am available to talk, cry, or listen.

We can do better. We must do better. And we will do it together.

Humble and Hopeful,

Meet the Author

Rachael Rollins

District Attorney, Suffolk County