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An Old Case Shows Differences In Tompkins County D.A. Candidates


Updated: 6/22/20 – 12:07 P.M.

TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) - The race for Tompkins County District Attorney is a contentious one. The candidates, current District Attorney Matt Van Houten and Ithaca attorney Ed Kopko, were opponents in a case last year that involved the arrest of two young black people. Now, that is part of the election.

Last week, in an online forum, the Democratic candidates were questioned by a group of black residents including college professors, a school board member, and social justice activists about policing and that specific case.

That incident started with an altercation on the Ithaca Commons and resulted in forceful arrests. A judge dismissed all charges against both people, but not before there were months of protests, and criticism of Van Houten and the police.

“Probably the most powerful thing that I learned is the trauma that I put these two young individuals through in the course of what I thought was trying to do the right thing, but, that’s--I didn't understand the trauma that it caused on them,” Van Houten admitted he made mistakes in his handling of the case. He said he is glad that the case turned out the way that it did.

But, Kopko, who was the attorney for one of the defendants, said it is not enough for Van Houten to admit mistakes in that case.

“In order to have a sincere admission of a mistake, it has to be coupled with an apology and that has never happened,” Kopko said.

The forum also revealed differences in the candidates' views on what the relationship between a D.A. and the police should be.

Van Houten believes when it comes to prosecuting a police officer, a D.A. should recuse themself and the case should be handled by a special prosecutor.

“It’s impossible for the community to believe that this officer that broke the law is being prosecuted fairly and impartially if—there has to be an ongoing relationship with those agencies in order for us to do our job, as, as the D.A.’s office. So, I would ensure that the officer that breaks the law is prosecuted by a special prosecutor, in most cases,” he said.

Kopko thinks the D.A. should have a more adversarial relationship with police.

“I am not so concerned about having a cozy relationship with police,” he said. “They have a job to do and I have a job to do, and I will not tolerate police misconduct.”

Kopko said he would prosecute police accused of misconduct, and create a Police Misconduct Board within the D.A.’s office.

Two days before the forum, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law new legislation creating an Office of Police Misconduct. The new office will handle misconduct complaints statewide about any local law enforcement agency.*

The candidates were also asked questions about structural racism in the county criminal justice system.

The primary election is Tuesday. No Republican candidate is running for the office.

*This story has been updated to include more statewide context.