Citing a rise in hate attacks, Damian Williams, the new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the creation of a civil rights unit in the office’s criminal division on Friday at a ceremony at the Harlem Armory, signaling a new focus for one of the country’s most powerful prosecutor’s offices.
“White supremacist groups are on the march,” said Mr. Williams, the first Black person to hold the post in the office’s 232-year history. “Antisemitism is on the march. Anti-Asian violence is on the march. Abuse of the most vulnerable in our society is on the march.”
Enforcement of civil rights violations in the office has largely been handled through civil lawsuits rather than criminal charges. But at a time when calls for a reconsideration of the way the justice system confronts issues of race and discrimination have grown louder, Mr. Williams said creating a civil rights unit within the office’s criminal division would elevate the work and “make us more effective.”
Mr. Williams, who was confirmed by the Senate last month, assumed his post roughly 17 months after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer and mass protests that followed in New York and across the nation calling for an end to racism in the criminal justice system.
In recent years, the office has brought notable criminal civil-rights prosecutions, like the conviction of a Rikers corrections officer who fatally beat a seriously ill prisoner while other guards held him down; and a 2019 federal hate crimes case against a man accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews — one victim, a rabbi, later died — during a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, N.Y.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, Karen Zraick and Benjamin Weiser