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Monroe County District Attorney's Office racist practices; Attorney Safa Robinson-Ferrer tells all

Tocsin Magazine sat down with Attorney Safa Robinson-Ferrer to discuss being an attorney of color, racism in the judicial system, and more.

Tocsin: Safa Robinson, it was a pleasure speaking with you during our open forum with Acting Public Defender Jill Paperno. How did you learn about the open forum?

Robinson-Ferrer: Thank you, I learned about the forum from Mike Johnson of the Save Rochester Organization. Save Rochester is an organization dedicated to eliminating poverty and racism within Rochester and neighboring areas.

Tocsin: Have you ever had any hesitation in being vocal about racism and your experience within the justice system?

Robinson-Ferrer: I never had hesitation about being vocal about racism. Addressing it does have its difficulties. Historically, the criminal justice system has facilitated racism and oppression and plays on poverty. That was and is to a degree the framework for the justice system and its consequences that we see today. In the observations that I have made, speaking up about racism looks as if you are race-baiting and creating division. You are trying to create problems that don't need to be addressed in the view of some. You're being Anti-American and against law enforcement. Many don't realize that even if actions are not directly racist, the impact of those actions perpetuates systematic racism. I've experienced and observed most racism when I was a prosecutor. In being vocal about it, you (myself) want to highlight what's taking place and can only do this based on our true experiences.

Don't get me wrong. There are some non-persons of color that understand racism and are allies. And there are some people that are willing to learn about it to become more mindful of racist practices and tendencies in hopes of having a better understanding as judges, lawyers, etc. I absolutely believe that there is a shift taking place where Blacks and other racial or ethnic groups are becoming more present and active in the justice system. However, we are still the minority.

Tocsin: During the conversation, we were so intrigued with your responses to racism, your experience in the District Attorney’s Office, and just you as a person that we wanted to learn more. So, would you please tell us a little about your background (where you grew up, schools and colleges you attended)?

Robinson-Ferrer: I grew up here in Rochester, New York. I attended School of the Arts for high school (dance major). I decided I would major in criminal justice during my undergraduate career. After high school, I briefly attended Virginia State University, a Historically Black College/University in Petersburg, Virginia. I ultimately came back to the Rochester area and graduated with my Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Roberts Wesleyan College. After my graduation from Roberts, I attended SUNY Buffalo School of Law where I earned my Juris Doctorate Degree, which is a fancy way of saying law degree. Since law school, I've been back in the Rochester area.

Tocsin: When did you know that you wanted to become an attorney?

Robinson-Ferrer: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an attorney. I'd say by the age of 11.

Tocsin: Was there a particular incident or person that piqued your interest in law?

Robinson-Ferrer: What piqued my interest in law? As a child, I was exposed to the criminal justice system by a family member. I did police ride-alongs and observed court proceedings and had the opportunity to meet judges and lawyers. I was fascinated by what I saw. Also, as cliche as it may sound, I was obsessed with the television show Law and Order. I would always stay up late at night with my mom to watch it and would always think to myself, 'I'm going to do that one day.' When I got to high school age and undergrad, I would always keep up with the news and the interesting trials that were taking place like Florida v. George Zimmerman where Trayvon Martin was the victim; and other cases similar in nature where young black men were murdered for being Black. Also, when I was very young, my aunt was murdered by her husband as a result of ongoing domestic violence. I do think in some way that also played a part in my interests.

Tocsin: What was the biggest obstacle (if any) on your path to becoming an attorney?

Robinson-Ferrer: The biggest obstacle in becoming an attorney at one point was my grades. When I came back to Rochester from Virginia State, I didn't take the importance of my grades seriously. I also had been traveling a bit and had been involved with other hobbies that I enjoyed so keeping up with having good grades wasn't at the forefront of my mind. I had done just enough to get by, maintaining a B to C grade point average. Thankfully, I was able to pull things together and get focused in time to pull my average up so that I could try to get into law school. SUNY Buffalo Law was actually the only law school choice that I got accepted into. It worked out perfectly because it was the most convenient to attend in terms of cost and distance (I commuted).

Tocsin: What year did you graduate from law school?

Robinson-Ferrer: I graduated from law school in May of 2017.

Tocsin: Do you recall how many people of color graduated that year?

Robinson-Ferrer: I don't recall the exact numbers, but I would say there were approximately 10-20 students of color in my graduating class.

Tocsin: Do you remember your first job after graduating from law school?

Robinson-Ferrer: During law school, I was a summer associate for a number of law firms. A summer associate is when you work as a practicing attorney under the supervision of other attorneys and the law firm during the summer break from classes (like a paid internship). My summer positions were with private law firms that practiced civil litigation and represented corporations and business entities like hospitals, insurance companies, etc.

The first actual job I had after graduating from law school while I was waiting for my bar exam results was in the Monroe County District Attorney's Office. My job title at the time was Confidential Assistant to the District Attorney. However, I was actually working as an assistant district attorney under a judicial practice order, which is an order issued by the Appellate Division that says I am authorized to practice under the guidance and supervision of the office. I couldn't be titled assistant district attorney at the time because I hadn't gotten my bar results yet and that was a requirement to be appointed ADA. Once I got my bar exam results that I passed, I was immediately appointed to the position of Assistant District Attorney in the Monroe County District Attorney's Office.

Tocsin: What was that experience like?

Robinson-Ferrer: What was that experience like? Working in the Monroe County DAs office was my first lawyer job out of law school. It was a fun experience, extremely fast-paced and full of hustle in the sense of making sure all of your cases were prepared to go, going to court appearances, writing motions and arguing them in court, and ultimately going to trial. It was great. I learned a lot in the DA's office and I credit that experience in part to why I am such a well-equipped defense attorney today. I am very familiar with the prosecution, their power, and more importantly, their weaknesses. It's crucial to exploit their weaknesses every chance I get to defend and protect my clients.

Tocsin: What type of law do you practice?

Robinson-Ferrer: My primary practice area is criminal defense. I practice in New York State Court and federal court. I have the ability to practice within federal courts throughout the United States, although my experience has been here within the Federal District of the Western District of New York.

On occasion, I assist already established clients with contracts and/or other business needs but that is limited.

Tocsin: When did you start working in the District Attorney’s office?

Robinson-Ferrer: I started working in the District Attorney's Office in the summer of 2017; just after law school graduation and before I passed the New York State Bar Exam.

Tocsin: Did you work directly with District Attorney Sandra Doorley?

Robinson-Ferrer: The way the District Attorney's Office works is, that you have the elected District Attorney (DA), a First Assistant, Second Assistant, and the remaining attorneys are all titled Assistant District Attorney (ADA). The idea is you are all one body, you are all whoever the acting DA is. There are different bureaus and in those bureaus, you have a bureau chief and deputy chief that you report to directly. The chiefs then report to the DA directly.

Although I knew her (and she was friendly with me for a time), I didn't work on any cases with Ms. Doorley directly. There were occasions when I would report to her for other tasks and we would attend community events together. I would join her on the radio. I also participated in the Rochester Fashion Week as the model/attorney for the District Attorney's Office on Sandra's behalf. I do believe it was because I was Black (and Puerto Rican) and this was during the election year. She was running against Shani Mitchell so I think (of course I could be wrong but I doubt it) she wanted to push the idea that the office was diverse, but it really wasn't. At one point, I was the only Black and/or Hispanic female attorney in the office. There was another female attorney half black, half white. Out of approximately 70 attorneys, there were only approximately 3-5 attorneys of color at the time.

Tocsin: What is your opinion of Sandra Doorley?

Robinson-Ferrer: She is a very strategic and dominant woman attorney. I am thankful to have worked under her administration because it gave me the practical tools and insight I needed to be a better defense attorney.

Tocsin: What were some of the challenges working within the DA’s Office?

Robinson-Ferrer: Minor challenges were: being overworked and having to manage the work/life balance. There were times that I worked 60-hour weeks and went in on the weekends.

While working at the DAs office was a great experience and there was a small sense of comradery that was short-lived. Like in police culture, in the DA's office there is a subculture that is riddled with racism and other prejudices including classism. A major challenge was there wasn't anyone in the office that looked like me, that I could relate to. When I began working at the DA's office, there were three senior Black Women ADAs. During my tenure, they had all left the office. The DA's Office was a lot like a college fraternity. Those who were popular and had a particular view were easily accepted. I fit in but at the same time I didn't fit in. I had the "prosecutor look," and I had the passion to do justice but it was in a different way than a lot of my peers in the office.

Lastly, was the favoritism that the DA's Office showed to the police. Not only are the police witnesses in prosecutor's cases, but they are also close friends, and some ADAs and police officers are in intimate relationships with one another. While it can be understandable that those relationships are created over time because prosecutors and police work closely together, that should also show you how this can create a dangerous bias towards law enforcement instead of looking at things in totality and taking into account other non-police witnesses and defendants' backgrounds and perspectives.

Tocsin: Was there ever a time that you felt racial bias?

Robinson-Ferrer: I felt racial bias while working in the DA’s office. I didn't subscribe to the typical prosecutor mentality (for the reasons above). Because I didn't, there would be times where it was implied or at least it felt like it was implied that my views were different from most because I was Black/Hispanic or came from the city. That is partly true; my views were different because of my life experiences. However, the issue became at a point; I was alienated because of it.

Tocsin: Have you ever witnessed or overheard any racial overtones regarding defendants of color?

Robinson-Ferrer: There were tons of racial overtones about defendants of color. Some of the ADAs would use terms like city people, ghetto people, or thugs when referring to Black people and some defendants.

Tocsin: What advice would you give Sandra Doorley’s office today?

Robinson-Ferrer: My advice to Sandra Doorley's office would be: You are necessary and must provide justice equally to everyone in the community that you serve. Be mindful that just because you have the power to do something doesn't mean that you always should. You are dealing with real people on the other side of the powerful decisions you make. Decisions that impact real families and that deprive people of life and liberty. More importantly, real justice is equitable and the pendulum will swing. Incorporate understanding and empathy because you may find yourselves or close family members in the situations you scrutinize the general public and communities of color over.

Tocsin: What has your experience been like as one of a few people of color working in the justice system?

Robinson-Ferrer: My experience as one of the few people (attorneys) of color working in the justice system has not always been easy. Oftentimes I am the only attorney of color and woman attorney of color in the courtroom all while, most of the defendants are men of color. It can be very heartbreaking at times to see the pain and suffering that goes on and how it impacts people for life. It is however still a tremendously rewarding experience. I represent individuals from all racial backgrounds. I have clients that are surprised to find out that I am Black when they meet me and find a lot of comfort in knowing that we can relate to one another culturally. I want my clients, particularly women of color to see themselves when they see me.

Tocsin: Have you ever witnessed an attorney displaying racial bias against his/her client?

Robinson-Ferrer: I haven't personally seen attorneys displaying racial bias against their clients but I have heard of attorneys doing and saying inappropriate racial comments to their clients. I have had individuals express concerns about the racist comments that their attorneys have used when communicating with them.

Tocsin: Have you ever witnessed a judge displaying bias against a defendant?

Robinson-Ferrer: I have seen judges display racial biases. I recall one time a judge commented about hanging a defendant, who happened to be Black because he did not appear for his scheduled court appearance. I have heard and seen judges get upset at some of the plea offers that ADAs extend to defendants of color and complain that they should receive a harsher sentence or punishment. Sometimes you can see the astonishment on some judges' faces when they see well-dressed men and women of color coming into their court.

Tocsin: Are you currently accepting clients? If so, how could readers get in touch with you?

Robinson-Ferrer: I am currently accepting new clients. If individuals find themselves the subject of a criminal investigation and/or have been charged with crimes within the State of New York or in federal court, they can reach me and my office by phone at 585-204-0993.

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