By David Brand
The case against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was the last straw for Joe Murray, the Queens County Republican Party’s new nominee for district attorney.
Murray, a defense attorney and former cop, said he was motivated to seek the GOP nomination because he perceives a citywide civil decay that, if unchecked, could hasten a return to “the 80s and 90s in New York City.”
The lack of respect for rank-and-file NYPD officers, most of all Pantaleo, is a symptom of that decay, he said. To Murray, the justice reform proposals championed by Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee for DA, will only make things worse.
“It bothers me so much how our society has become so anti-police,” Murray told the Eagle a day after officially receiving the GOP nomination on Sunday. “We need law and order. In a civilized society, you have a problem with the police, you hire a lawyer. You fight the police there. Not in the streets.”
Murray was particularly angry when Pantaleo was fired by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill on Aug. 19. O’Neill determined that Pantaleo administered a banned chokehold that led to the death of Eric Garner in 2014. Murray disagreed.
“Look at Pantaleo, look at this poor guy. If you see these cops [at the scene of Garner’s death], you look at this video and they are absolute professionals,” Murray said. “They’re not yelling, they’re not screaming. They’re acting very calm.
“He’s resisting and they took him to the ground in seconds without a scratch,” he added. “In my day, [cops] had wooden nightsticks and [Garner] would have had his head bashed in. But these guys are good and we fire them.”
Before he could run on the GOP line in the November general election, Murray, a registered Democrat who supports President Donald Trump, had to earn the trust of the beleaguered county party. Murray finally received the nod during an event at the party’s Glendale headquarters Sunday night. He took over from attorney Daniel Kogan, a placeholder candidate who was designated for a judicial nomination earlier this month.
Murray’s policy positions don’t fit neatly into a completely conservative or liberal box.
He said his career as a criminal defense attorney has shaped his perspective and made him a criminal justice reformer on certain issues, like speedy trial reform and prioritizing the prosecution of white-collar crime. He said he would form an “untouchables unit” to investigate corruption among lawmakers, businesspeople, local political parties and even top brass in the NYPD.
Nevertheless, he opposes ending cash bail, finds the state’s new 15-day discovery law “unfeasible” and wants to keep the jails on RIkers Island open. He said he will continue to prosecute sex work and low-level offenses like marijuana possession and fare evasion, but he favors alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanors.
“Low level stuff means something. Quality of life offenses mean something,” he said. “But there’s a deterrence factor. Am I putting people in jail? No. There’s community service, alternatives.”
“But if you don’t nip that in the bud, people will think they can do more of it,” he added.
That perspective ultimately put Murray over the top with the Queens County Republican Party, said party chairperson Joann Ariola. The party is banking on the registered Democrat’s ability to pick off votes from moderates dissatisfied with the reform proposals that dominated the Democratic primary.
“It was Joe Murray speaking and telling people what motivated him to run” that sold party members on his candidacy, Ariola said.
“His absolute disgust in watching our police officers have to walk away from people assaulting them with water buckets,” she added. “He felt he had no choice but to throw his hat in.”
Repulican leaders had hoped that former Judge Gregory Lasak would agree to accept the GOP nomination after Lasak, a former top assistant district attorney in Queens, finished third in the Democratic primary. The GOP nomination “was his to turn down,” Ariola said.
Lasak decided not to seek the GOP line after Katz officially defeated public defender Tiffany Cabán earlier this month, Ariola said. That opened the position for Murray, who had previously advocated for Lasak to run.
Murray’s “passion and zeal to really run a competitive race and win” motivated the GOP to nominate him, Ariola said. His message will resonate with the 14.5 percent of Democratic voters who chose Lasak in the Democratic primary, she said.
“I think that his years of experience, his life experience, his professional experience, his law and order history from being a police officer, being a defense attorney” appealed to party members, Ariola said. As did his “conservative views on quality of life issues,” she added.
A spokesperson for Katz, Murray’s opponent in the November election, said Murray’s candidacy would interfere with “historic criminal justice reform” and “monumental change” in Queens.
“It would come as no surprise to us if Trump Republicans want to use incendiary rhetoric to perpetuate a status quo that fails Queens families,” said spokesperson Matthew Rey.