I strictly pursue justice with integrity and focus on doing good to the Bronxites -- DA Clark
Darcel Denise Clark made history in 2016 when she became the first female and first African-American woman to be elected to the position of District Attorney in New York State.
Parkchester Times recently caught up with the 13th Bronx County District Attorney, who is also a lifelong Bronxite in which she shared her life history and her experience working as the District Attorney for one of the counties with the highest crime rate.
Born on April 2, 1962 in the Bronx, Clark grew up in public housing around the Soundview section of the borough and went to public schools at Harry S Truman High School before going on to become the first from her family to go to college.
“I have a bachelor degree in Political Science from Boston College and a law degree from the historically black college Howard University School of Law,” she said. “I started my legal career in the Bronx as an assistant District Attorney. I did that for 13 years. Then I was appointed as a judge. I was elected to the Supreme Court and then I was also elevated and appointed to the Supreme Court. So I spent 13 years as an Assistant DA, 15 years as a judge and now I have been elected DA for the Bronx,” said Clark, who is serving her second term in office up to 2024.
Asked on how it was like serving as a woman of color in that position, Clark said she doesn’t consider her gender and race as an obstacle.
“But I think there are times when the police department or a different law enforcement agency would treat me differently because I am a woman. If there was a man in the place, they would do it differently but I don’t accept that. I always move forward doing what is best for my community. My focus is to make sure I do what is good for the people of the Bronx,” she said.
Clark added in her message of encouragement to young ones that, “anybody can be whatever they want. You should be what you can see. I should be an example to a young girl or man as somebody that grew up in the streets and still managed to come back.”
Married to an NYPD detective Eaton “Ray” Davis for the last 22 years, Clark said she has always wanted to serve in public office and considers it an honor to live in a borough such as the Bronx, which she serves on a daily basis.
“My husband is an NYPD detective who has been on the job for 39 years. There is real law and order in my house. I don't have to watch TV. I got it home,” said Clark, with a chuckle.
According to Clark’s biography, the DA’s mission is “Pursuing Justice with Integrity,” and in fulfilling that mission she has restructured the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to reflect 21st Century prosecution, focusing on fairness to defendants, assistance for victims, crime prevention and community outreach. She enacted the Vertical Prosecution model, created a Conviction Integrity Unit, a Professional Responsibility Bureau, a Public Integrity Bureau, and established a Rikers Island Prosecution Bureau to decrease violence and corruption in the jails.
The DA explained that much as her core duty is to protect public safety by working closely with the NYPD and everyone that is involved in law enforcement, she also works closely with the community.
“I have to understand the community to protect them. So I am involved with the businesses, civic associations etc. in making sure the public safety increases,” Clark said. “My work involves not only the victims of crime but also the communities that suffer the crime as well as the defendants who are accused of crime to make sure that there is fairness in the system, so that everybody is treated fairly. Those who deserve jail I make sure that is done but those who deserve a chance or those who don't deserve to go into the criminal justice system in the first place, I have the ability to do that. The DA has a tremendous amount of discretion which I use to benefit the 1.4 million people in the Bronx.”
Asked for her views on New York’s bail reforms, Clark was in agreement with the reforms saying a community like the Bronx with a large population of Black and Brown people who had suffered over the years from draconian laws, needed the changes.
“We have to look out for people that are wrongly accused and unlawfully convicted. I think the reforms were a way of making sure that we avoid those kinds of problems,” she said. “90 percent of the people that go through the justice system are not a danger to public safety so they should be allowed to stay at home, go to school, and take care of their families. They should be allowed to have bail. For someone like me who grew up in the projects and was accused of some of these crimes, the bail reforms were absolutely needed so that people can all be treated fairly as long as they don't cause a threat to public safety.”
When told that some sections of society were attributing the spike in crime across the city to the bail reforms as more criminals had been let loose on the streets, Clark disagreed with that view saying COVID-19 has been the number one driver of crime in the city.
“I don't agree that the bail reforms are the reason why we have this spike in crime. I look at it that COVID-19 was the number one driver of crime. You had people that were cooked up, frustrated they lost their jobs, they lost loved ones, people are hurt, they are sad, they are angry. There is a lot of beef going on, on social media, people doing all kinds of things. As they wear masks, they think nobody knows who they are as they commit crimes,” said Clark before adding, “And then there was the social unrest, the racial injustices and the protests made the police back up a little bit on their job because there is no public trust and then we saw the increase in the violence. What we have to do is look at the real causes of those problems and start doing something about them, like putting more resources in the community, putting facilities, jobs, affordable housing, those are the things that will help us solve crime in our city. The Bronx is always the first in everything bad and also always the first in everything good. The resources are just not here and because the resources are not here, people unfortunately, end up entering the criminal justice system.”
Clark said resolving social challenges such as crime required the full participation of the community.
“Working in partnership with the community, not just going out and naming a number of policies but if the community doesn't buy it or accept it, it won't work,” she said. “What I do is go out and work shoulder to shoulder with the community. I tell them, I have a tremendous amount of discretion, I also have a tremendous amount of resources, tell me what is needed in this community that can help stem this violence? I go to the gang members and say tell me what is going to make you put your gun down? If you tell me what is going to make you put that gun down, I am going to go out and make sure you get what you need so that it can be safer for our community.”
Clark said in the last five years, she has worked hard to earn the trust of the community.
“I have worked hard to really get the community to know that they can trust me, that they can trust my judgment and through my discretion, that I am not going to abuse my power and that I am going to be fair to anybody whether you’re a victim or a defendant. And of course my relationship with the NYPD, they know that I also understand you know… their job and what they need and how we can respect each other. We may not always agree but we always have the same goals, which are the safety of the public,” she said.
Clark said the correct phrase that should have been used in reference to “defund the police” should have been ‘fund the community.”
“I think we should not call it defund the police but fund the community by giving the community the resources that they need. When you talk about defund the police you mean something that the police are called for which the community should be responsible for,” she said.
She said one of the areas that she will prioritize this year is going to be mental health.
“People that have mental challenges end up in the criminal justice system because nobody knows what to do with them. Everybody wants to call 911 and who responds to 911 calls? It’s the NYPD and eventually the DA has to get involved somewhere. We should not be involved. We should be the last resort, not first resort,” Clark said. “What we need to do as far as defund the police is concerned, is to use resources for the department of mental health, ensure affordable housing for people on the streets. If I took a map of the violence in the Bronx right now and look at the places where the violence and the murders are and then I put up a map showing me what resources are in those neighborhoods you will find that most of them do not have community centers, there are a whole lot of liquor stores.”
On Rikers Island’s imminent closure, which will result in the largest jail being replaced with four smaller and more modern jails located closer to the city’s main courthouses in the five boroughs, Clark said she fully supports the move.
“By 1990, we had 22,000 people in Rikers Island; we have now remained with 5,000. Before the pandemic or during the pandemic, we reduced it to about 3,800,” said Clark, who attributed this to the bail reforms. “For us, our focus is putting people in there that really should be in there, those that are really threatening public safety. Those are more serious people that need to be there. Rikers Island is known for its dysfunction, its violence and as the DA for the Bronx, the criminal activities that goes on at Rikers Island, I am responsible for prosecuting those as well. Be it the smuggling of drugs or those correctional officers using excessive force, I am in charge of all those.”
Clark said in view of that, she supported the closure of the jail to enable the people who are jailed not to be so isolated.
“I was one of the DAs that were in favor of closing Rikers Island for smaller ones in the community so that these people can see their loved ones and won’t be so isolated,” she said. “People can watch what is going on and have more access to facilities that are not on Rikers Island. This is an unpopular decision because everybody is like what people are we? That we don't want these people in our backyards and we have to deal with that.”
During her time in office, District Attorney Clark pioneered initiatives such as the Overdose Avoidance and Recovery Program that diverts low-level offenders at risk of opioid overdose directly into treatment, and Bronx Community Justice, which involves “circles” of community volunteers who resolve petty crimes with offenders outside of the criminal justice system.
Prior to her election, District Attorney Clark served as an Associate Justice for the NYS Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department; a NYS Supreme Court Justice in Bronx County; and a Criminal Court Judge in Bronx and New York Counties. She spent more than 16 years on the bench.
She serves as a member of the Board of Trustees at Boston College where she got her bachelor degree in Political Science.
After graduating college, Clark returned to the Bronx in 1986 to begin her legal career at the District Attorney’s Office. She prosecuted drug felonies, violent crimes and homicides. District Attorney Clark served as a Supervising ADA in the Narcotics Bureau and the Deputy Chief of the Criminal Court Bureau. In 1999, she left the Office for her first judicial post where she served until she moved to her current position.
Clark is a Vice President of the National District Attorneys Association and a Board member of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. She is also a member of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence. She frequently addresses national and local legal organizations, including the American Bar Association, the National Black Prosecutors Association and the New York State and NeNew York City Bar Associations, on a range of criminal justice topics.