Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An Interview with Peter Amuso

Peter Amuso is the Democratic candidate for Montgomery County District Attorney. He has been endorsed by Gov. Ed Rendell, Congressional Representatives Allyson Schwartz and Patrick Murphy, State Senator Connie Williams, State Representatives Josh Shapiro, Larry Curry, and Daylin Leach. Last February I posted a brief biographical note about Amuso and a fuller biography is available on his website.

The crime statistics referred to here can be viewed at the Pennsylvania State Police Uniform Crime Reports site.

The Montgomery County District Attorney’s office has over 30 assistant district attorneys and a number of staff. What in your background qualifies you to lead so many people?

Two experiences in particular: my military service, and my time on the School Board of Springfield Township. As an officer in the Army, I learned to lead groups of people to accomplish goals and missions through a chain of command. I mentored and trained subordinates, and enforced rules. As a member of the School Board, I oversee an organization with a much larger budget, and many more employees, then the District Attorney’s Office.

Are you satisfied with the crime clearance rates in Montgomery County? How do they compare to other counties?

The crime clearance rates in Montgomery County are comparable to other counties in our part of the state. The issue in Montgomery County is the steep increase in crime rates, particularly violent crime- according to the official crime statistics kept by the Pennsylvania State Police, the overall crime rate in Montgomery County has increased 8.5% since 2002. The violent crime rate is up 19.3% in the same time period. Robbery is up 22.6% and the rate of robberies committed by firearm is up a staggering 48%. This is unacceptable, and as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer in the County, the responsibility rests with the District Attorney.

We’ve got to do something different. Simply waiting for crimes to be committed is not acceptable. That is why I am going to implement the gun violence prevention and community prosecution plans described below.

There are certain “hot spots” in the county that consistently have more overall per capita crime than others. What accounts for that and what can be done about it?

Actually, I think it is a mistake to dismiss any increase in crime as due to the “hot spots” of the conventional wisdom: which are usually considered to be Pottstown and Norristown. Crime is actually increasing everywhere in Montgomery County. In 2002 in Abington Township there were 7 armed robberies; in 2006 there were 20, a nearly 300% increase. I’ve met with Republicans in Upper Hanover Township who have expressed concern about the number of armed bank robberies in that area. The deli I go to every other morning in Wyndmoor- Flannery’s on Willow Grove Ave.- was held up at 6am on September 11 of this year. This is just few blocks from my house, from my backyard where my children play.

The common denominator to armed robberies in Pennsburg and in Wyndmoor and in Norristown is easy access to guns, which is made possible by illegal gun sales. I have outlined my plans to establish a Montgomery County Gun Violence Task Force that will focus on illegal gun sales across the County:

1. I will seek permission from the U.S. Attorney to assign one Assistant District Attorney permanently to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney to ensure that gun offenders receive the maximum penalty possible.

2. I will conduct sting operations at gun shops in Montgomery County to ensure compliance with existing Pennsylvania laws concerning the sale of guns, and to reduce illegal purchases, including straw purchases, of weapons.

3. When a gun recovered from a crime is traced to an original purchaser, he will mandate the review of all gun purchase records for that person and the interview of that person, so that straw purchases can be discovered, and patterns of gun trafficking identified.

Further, I will advocate in Harrisburg for two gun violence prevention bills that have been stuck in Harrisburg for awhile: one that would limit handgun purchases to one a month, and one that would require reporting a lost or stolen weapon to police. So many illegal handguns come first from legal multiple purchases- someone will buy several handguns and then sell them on the street. Then, when one of the handguns are used in a crime, and traced back to that person, he will claim that he lost the weapon awhile ago. These laws will greatly reduce the flow of illegal weapons, and give us another tool to go after straw purchasers.

It is also important to recognize that Montgomery County is not separated from Philadelphia by a wall- guns and crime can flow freely back and forth across Stenton Avenue. With over 70 guns shops in Montgomery County (compared to less than 20 in Philadelphia), cracking down on illegal gun trafficking in the County should have a positive impact in the City as well.

What do you think of “specialty courts” like drug court for drug offenses, or mental health court?

I think specialty courts can be important part of the effort to reduce crime rates because they can reduce recidivism rates. In particular, drug courts have been shown to be very effective in reducing recividivism. Unlike the current District Attorney’s Office, I would fully support the Drug Court established by Judge O’Neill last year, and would work with him to expand it. By providing first-time nonviolent offenders with a treatment program, enforced by the judge, Drug Court is a commonsense solution that makes out streets safer and reduces overcrowding in the prisons.

Do you approve of the way the DA’s office is currently organized? What, if anything, would you change?

I will shift the office to a community-based prosecution model. Instead of having prosecutors organized by crime specialty, I will organize them geographically. This is something being championed by the National District Attorney’s Association, through their National Center for Community Prosecution:

When prosecutors are assigned geographically, they develop relationships with not only local law enforcement, but local schools, churches, and other community organizations. The District Attorney’s Office can then work with those organizations and citizens in the community to develop local solutions to crime: targeting nuisance bars, condemning known drug houses, or establishing drug-free zones. The improved relationships and local knowledge also aid significantly in the investigation and prosecution of all crime.

This process will take some time, and I certainly intend to keep some specialized units at the County level- in particular the domestic violence and sex crimes unit. Nonetheless, it is critical that the District Attorney’s Office not just focus on processing cases, but in actually making the County a safer place. My goal is to do reduce the crime rate, and not watch it continue to rise.

How can you keep all aspects of partisanship out of an elected office? Should you even try?

You make a good point, and there are some good arguments about making District Attorney an appointed position, and not a partisan elected office. However, the District Attorney’s Office is a partisan elected position, so you have to work with what you have.

You absolutely must try to keep all aspects of partisanship of the prosecutor’s office. One of the U.S. Attorneys purged by George Bush and Alberto Gonzalez, Bud Cummins, put the issue in context, in words that apply to state prosecutors as well:

Put simply, the Department of Justice lives on credibility. When a federal prosecutor sends FBI agents to your brother's house with an arrest warrant, demonstrating an intention to take away years of his liberty, separate him from his family, and take away his property, you and the public at large must have absolute confidence that the sole reason for those actions is that there was substantial evidence to suggest that your brother intentionally committed a federal crime. Everyone must have confidence that the prosecutor exercised his or her vast discretion in a neutral and nonpartisan pursuit of the facts and the law. Being credible is like being pregnant -- you either are, or you aren't. If someone says they "kind of" believe what you say, they are really calling you a liar. Once you have given the public a reason to believe some of your decisions are improperly motivated, then they are going to question every decision you have made, or will make in the future. That is a natural and predictable phenomenon.

The prosecutorial power is the most sacred a government has, and must be kept sacrosanct. I’ve outlined my plan to remove partisan politics from the D.A.’s office, following the same basic rules as exist in at the state and federal levels, and in Philadelphia:

1. No prosecutor will run for political office while employed as an assistant district attorney.
2. No prosecutor will serve as a committeeperson, an area leader, or in any other office or position in a political party.
3. No prosecutor will manage, serve on the staff of, or volunteer for a political campaign.
4. No prosecutor will solicit contributions for a political candidate.
5. No prosecutor will engage in political activity in the office or while on duty.

I have also outlined what I will do to keep politics out of the D.A.’s office:

1. I will not solicit, nor accept, contributions to my re-election campaign from my prosecutors.
2. I will not involve my prosecutors in my re-election campaign in any way.
3. I will not run my re-election campaign from the District Attorney’s Office.
4. I will not take party registration into account when hiring new prosecutors.

Getting politics out of the District Attorney’s Office is critical to the credibility of the justice system.

Tell us about your work as a Judge Advocate in Albania and Germany?

I went to Georgetown on a four-year Army ROTC scholarship; in return, I owed the Army four years of active duty service. I delayed my active duty commitment to go to Harvard Law School. After Harvard, I went on active duty and attended the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia , where I earned my parachute wings.

My first duty station was at headquarters of V Corps in Heidelberg, Germany. I was the Legal Assistance Officer at Patton Barracks, where I provided free legal advice to all members of the local military community on any issue they had, except for criminal issues. Everyday was a different experience, and I learned a lot about a lot of a wide range of areas of the law. My next position was on battlestaff for V Corps, where I provided the Corps commander with law of war advice. During the 1999 bombing of Serbia by NATO, the headquarters of V Corps deployed to Tirana, Albania, as Task Force Hawk to provide artillery and attack helicopters to the war effort. I worked in targeting, providing legal advice on issues like collateral damage. Once the bombing campaign was over, I traveled northern Albania paying farmers and villagers for damages the Army may have caused during training for the mission in Kosovo. The Albanians were so grateful that the United States respected their private property enough to pay them for damage we caused- it was enforcement of the rule of law at its most important and basic level.

I began my prosecutorial duties when I was still with Task Force Hawk, and became the lone Army prosecutor in Heidelberg upon my return from Albania. Heidelberg is home to both the Headquarters of the U.S. Army in Europe, as well as V Corps, making it the largest American military community in Germany. After serving as prosecutor there for one year, I was attached to the 1st Bridge, 1st Armored Division, as member of the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service, which defends soldiers facing military justice action. One of the best things about the Army is tremendous responsibility it gives you from day one. As a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, I simply had to try whatever cases came up. If it happened in the units I was responsible for, I had to deal with it- there were no other lawyers or agencies for me to punt cases to. But in the process, I developed excellent relationships with the command and senior noncommissioned officers in the unit. When I left Germany, the first sergeant of one of the tank companies stopped me on post to thank me for the work I had done for his soldiers- he knew that their rights would be vigorously enforced if they were represented by me.

It was excellent trial experience- the federal rules of evidence applied, and a military trial looks exactly like a civilian trial, except everyone is in uniform. In a lot of ways, it was a more difficult system for prosecutors then civilian trials: the juries were all senior officers and sergeants, and the jury could ask questions. The accused soldier had broader protection from questioning than just your typical Miranda rights, making for bruising battles about whether or not incriminating statements could come in. Most of the cases were drug-related or involved thefts, but there were many violent crimes as well. It was certainly the most intense period of my legal career.

Your father and maternal grandfather have or were both involved in public service and held or ran for elected office. What influence did that have on you?

Both had a tremendous influence on my life.

My mother’s father, Augustine “Justi” Leonard, was born in the village of Cerda, Sicily, in 1909, and came to this county in 1914 with his mother and older brother. My great- grandfather had already settled in Mingo Junction, Ohio, a small steel mill town along the West Virginia panhandle, 30 miles west of Pittsburgh. He worked in the steel mill, and when Justi graduated from the local parish grade school, which stopped at 10th grade, my great-grandfather insisted that Justi go to work full-time in the mill. My grandfather wanted to finish his education, but my great-grandfather would not hear of it. Thus, at the age of 16, my grandfather, with the help of the pastor of the parish, left his home, and moved in with another family across town. From there he finished high school, attended Georgetown, and graduated from the University of Cincinnati Law School in the class of 1931.

He then worked as a Deputy Attorney General in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1930s, before returning home to Mingo Junction to open a private practice. After service in World War II, my grandfather continued his law practice, while also serving as attorney for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Steubenville, and as the attorney for the City of Steubenville. Fluent in Italian, he was known for providing legal advice to the Italian immigrant community for reduced or no fee. He carried on his law practice until the late 1990s.

My grandfather’s defiant risk in seeking an education, done at the young age of 16, has always been to me the shining example of doing what you know if right, whatever the costs. His service to his fellow Italian immigrants has stayed with me as the importance of treating all people with respect.

My father ran for the Pennsylvania State House in 1980. At the time we lived in Lebanon County, and 1980 was not a great year to be running as a Democrat. While my father did not win the election, the experience of watching him on the campaign trail (he took me and my young brother to many events that summer) inspired me to be politically active as well. My father also continued his public service, although not in partisan politics, through his work as school superintendent.

Recently I heard the state Attorney General talking about the number of labor unions that represent the employees of his office. Are there similar issues in the District Attorney’s office?

There are none as far as I am aware. I firmly believe in the right workers to organize.

You are currently on the Springfield School Board. What can be done to steer at risk youth away from crime?

First key is identifying at-risk youth, so it is important that students feel they can talk to at least one teacher if they are having problems. Similarly, teachers must be trained to recognize problems in their students. If a student is at-risk, we can make sure that they get the counseling they need, and that they feel supported and valued at school, so that they don’t seek validation from gangs or other criminals. We need to make sure they get involved with extracurricular activities at school, and that they understand that there is a future for them if they work hard and keep their nose clean. Open lines of communication between students and teachers are essential.

I’m intrigued by the “broken windows” theory, that cracking down on minor offenses like graffiti and breaking windows reduces crime overall. Some theorists and practitioners agree; others don’t. What do you think?

I agree with it. Much of community prosecution is the prosecutor’s version of the “broken windows” theory. By addressing the quality-of-life crimes identified by the community, community-prosecution can reduce crime. When a prosecutor is assigned geographically, she will be more willing and able to concentrate on quality-of-life crimes that can get ignored when you are juggling cases from across the county. If you can eliminate nuisance bars, you can prevent the violent fights that can occur there. If you can aggressively condemn abandoned houses, you can prevent drug dealing from them. This is the only way we will be able to reduce the County’s rising crime rate.

What are the three greatest dangers to the citizens of Montgomery County? What can the District Attorney’s office do to decrease those dangers and what can citizens do?

Honestly, the biggest danger currently facing the citizens of Montgomery County is gun violence, and I have seen it everywhere- from my neighborhood, to Pottstown, to the western end of the County. With a dramatic increase in the armed robbery rate of 50% since 2002, we need to crack down on access to illegal handguns. That will be my first priority as District Attorney. Citizens can be alert, and certainly report any information they may have on illegal gun sales are occurring to their local police, but the best way to reduce gun violence in the short term is to reduce the supply of illegal guns.

What question didn’t I ask that you would like to answer?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Personally, I am impressed with Peter. I think he has shown himself to be bright, hard working and able.
I also feel that the DA's office needs a shake-up. They just keep promoting the same partisan hacks and seem more concerned with keeping the county red than with doing what is right. The DA's office should never be concerned with the party registration listed next to a person's name.