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DA Candidates Disagree Over Who Is 'Top Cop'

Michael Barnes

This week, WFAE's election coverage will largely focus on the race for Mecklenburg County District Attorney. DA Peter Gilchrist, who has held the position since 1975, is retiring. Republican Andrew Murray and Democrat Michael Barnes are running to replace him. We'll profile their race on Wednesday. First, we'll hear just from them. They debated last week at the Charlotte School of Law. One of the issues they addressed was illegal immigration and enforcement of the controversial 287G program. We'll hear what they had to say on those issues tomorrow. Today, we pick up on their philosophical disagreement over who is Mecklenburg County's "Top Cop." Barnes says it should be the District Attorney. Murray disagrees. We'll hear first from him on the subject, followed by Barnes. Debate Moderator (WFAE's Julie Rose): As district attorney, how will you ensure that outside agencies such as the police department or city government won't influence prosecutorial discretion in handling cases? Murray: That's a point-blank question. A prosecutor is a prosecutor, you work with law enforcement and work to be a team, but once the case comes to the prosecution office, it becomes the case of the prosecutor. You look at the case, you make certain that it's defendant, defendant, defendant, and that the arrest was not based on anything else than meeting the elements of a crime, that a crime was committed. And then, you take that case to prosecution. The relationship with the police should be cordial. I'm going to mend that relationship, the relationship with all law enforcement, the relationship with everyone, all of the spokes within the criminal justice system, should be cordial, should all work together, to make certain that justice is served. But, the autonomy of the prosecutor is paramount. The autonomy of the prosecutor is to make certain that justice is served. It is not to make arrests, it's not to get people off the streets, the prosecutor is not law enforcement, it's not Top Cop. It is the top prosecutor in this district to make certain that justice is served, and I intend to make certain that justice is served in this community. That's why I've thrown my name in to be your next elected district attorney. Barnes: I had a meeting a few months ago with several of the chiefs in the county, including the chief of Charlotte, Chief Monroe, and I made it clear as we talked about the collaboration that's necessary between our DA's office and the police departments in this county that it would not be my expectation that the DA's office would become an arm of the police department. And they understood that and appreciated it. All they asked for was stronger collaboration. They want to have, essentially, a fair hearing by the ADA and DA's office. They want to have a partner in the crime-fighting process. I disagree with my opponent, I think that the DA. should be the Top Cop. It is the expectation of the people in this county that our DA not only enforce the law but protect them. They want their communities protected and the DA has the power and the ability to do that. And that's what I intend to do. I'm not running so that I can sit there and agree with a couple things here and there and have a cup of coffee and go home. My job is to work with our police departments and sheriff's department, to hold people accountable for committing a crime. And by the way, the city council does fund, I do fund, eight investigators in the D.A.'s office. We spend $2.4 million between the DA's office and the court system, so we are contributing now to resolve the challenges in this community and I want to continue to do that. This is not just stuff that's floating around in my mind, this is on the ground, street-level work. And by the way, with respect to what Mr. Gilchrist has done or not done in the last 35 years. I don't know what he has done in Raleigh and he doesn't either, because we havent' been there with him. I know what I do on behalf of the people of this city - working with state legislators, working with members of Congress - but I don't know what Mr. Gilchrist has done. And I'm not going to criticize what he has or has not done because I don't know. JR: Mr. Murray Murray: To call yourself the Top Cop as the head prosecutor is a fundamental misunderstanding of our rules of justice of our system. Our prosecutor should be nowhere close to the Top Cop. We have a Top Cop. His name is Rodney Monroe. His job is to make certain his individuals are trained and equipped to investigate, to arrest, to bring quality cases to the prosecutor, and that's where it ends. The prosecutor's job is to take that and prosecute that case to conviction. There is a separation there, there is a separation that has to be there. It's required to be there. And for those lines to blend is frightening to me as a citizen of this community. Barnes: I am not interested in protecting criminals. I have talked to Chief Monroe and I have talked to the other chiefs as I have mentioned and they very much understand and desire to have a collaboration where the DA's office is working with them to make sure that the cases are strong. They are not saying 'We don't want you to have anything to do with us, we want to work with you.' They want to work with the DA's office in a healthy way. I've also talked to detectives who say they want to have a strong relationship with the DA's office so that when they bring the case in the case is made stronger because of that collaboration, not necessarily taken apart. So, for my opponent to say that it is not appropriate that the DA have a good relationship with the... Women in audience: He didn't say that! He didn't say that! Barnes: ...prosecutor to such a degree that he becomes the Top Cop, theoretically speaking, I think, is a mistake. My job as your DA is to protect the people of this county from people who are breaking the law, and that's what I'll do.