DA candidates square off in virtual debate
The two candidates running for district attorney for Chautauqua County recently squared off for an hour-long virtual debate sponsored by the county League of Women Voters.
Starting the debate was challenger Jason Schmidt. He talked about growing up in Queens “in a bad neighborhood” and started his career as a case worker working in the foster care system inspecting foster homes in Brooklyn. He went to law school to “make a change” for children and relocated to Chautauqua County in 2003.
After moving to the local area, Schmidt said he was told by the Fredonia Police Chief, “Welcome to Mayberry” referring to the Andy Griffith TV show from the 1960s.
For Schmidt, that meant that he was moving to a community that he didn’t have to worry about locking one’s door or leaving the keys in the ignition.
“That’s changed quite a bit in the last 20 years,” he said.
Schmidt acknowledged that some of that change is due to society, but also he believes it has changed due to the current leadership in the DA’s office. “The problem that we have in Chautauqua County for the last four years is there’s been a breakdown in the prosecution of the police arrests,” he said.
Schmidt previously worked for the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office before becoming a criminal defense attorney. “I’ve been working the criminal justice system for the last 15 years and I know the system. I know it very well. I’ve build a record of success achieving wins in the courtroom, in here, in Mayville, in Chautauqua County and I want to bring that level of success to the District Attorney’s office,” he said.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Patrick Swanson grew up in Chautauqua County, as did his family. He has many years of courtroom experience, including being the incumbent for the position. “I’ve been doing it for the last five years. I’ve been a full-time prosecutor for the last nine years. Prior to that I was a defense lawyer in Memphis, Tennessee. I, too, have extensive trial experience,” he said.
Swanson believes the most pressing issue facing the District Attorney’s Office is the reopening of the courts, which have been mostly closed since March, and the backlog of cases. “At the end of the day, we need to have an office in place an office that knows how to handle those cases, that knows how to handle the system we have here in Chautauqua County,” he said.
Swanson defended his record over the last five years. “You can compare our statistics in our office to any county in the state and what you’re going to see is that we’re doing as good or better than everybody in the state’s 62 counties,” he said.
Swanson also said Chautauqua County has the highest caseload in the state, about 287 cases per prosecutor.
Schmidt believes Swanson spends too much time outside Chautauqua County working with the state District Attorney’s Association and needs to do more to gain convictions in local cases. “It’s really very simple; let’s achieve some success here,” he said.
According to Schmidt, in 2019, police made about 1,000 felony arrests, but Swanson was only able to gain about a 17.4% felony conviction rate. “Chautauqua County is at the very lowest end. It’s not above the average,” he said.
Swanson insisted that what Schmidt stated was inaccurate. “If you look at the last four years in New York state our felony convictions on felonies is 21% and the state average is 20 (%). We are higher than the state average. We’re doing better than everyone else,” he said.
The two candidates were asked by moderator Marcia Merrins how they would handle a fatal use of force by police.
Swanson said he knows what that’s like because he went through that two years ago in Fredonia. “Part of my relationship with the District Attorneys Association allows me to speak with other people that have gone through this as well,” he said. “I utilized those resources. We did a full and fair investigation.”
Schmidt responded by saying he would work with the police agencies that should investigate these types of incidents. “Investigate the crimes. Understand what’s happened hear. Apply the facts of the law,” he said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s something that should be done all the time. And it’s not something that you need to look outside to the county to the District Attorney’s Association to do.”
Both candidates supported training sensitivity training for police and both opposed “defunding the police.” Swanson and Schmidt both feel local police departments need more funding, not less.
When asked about plea bargaining, both candidates see it as an important tool. Schmidt feels that Swanson’s track record shows “no accountability” and “no confidence,” adding that in 2019, Swanson went forward on only 23% of the 1,080 felony arrests. “That’s not acceptable for me and my family. It’s certainly not acceptable for the people of Chautauqua County,” he said.
Swanson denied what Schmidt stated. “Plea bargaining a case is moving forward on a case. You’re getting a conviction. You’re finding some resolution. This notion that we’re not prosecuting our cases is just nonsense,” he said.
One question the two candidates disagreed was if there is an implicit bias in local law enforcement. Schmidt insisted there is none but added that police are discouraged about the lack of convictions. “They make arrests and they don’t see their arrests being prosecuted,” he said. “The police are made up of good people who aren’t in this job to get rich.”
Swanson, however, had a different opinion. “I don’t know how you can say no (there’s no implicit bias). I just don’t. If you pay attention to the world I don’t know how you say that,” he said. “By saying that, by no stretch of the imagination are you insinuating that police are doing something wrong intentionally. It’s something that was ingrained in our system that was written when there were slaves.”
Swanson believes addressing implicit bias is something that must be addressed today. “I think you can do it in a way where everybody sees progress,” he said. “By admitting there is implicit bias, you’re not saying cops are racist. I know almost all the cops in this county. They’re good folks. They want to go to their jobs and go home, but there’s a systematic problem that needs to be addressed.”
Other topics addressed included immigration, bail reform and prosecuting children as adults. The entire debate can be viewed on the Chautauqua County League of Women Voter’s YouTube page.