The late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson was immortalized with the co-naming of a Downtown Brooklyn street on Saturday, which brought together elected leaders, including Thompson’s successor, to pay tribute to the borough’s former top cop.
The Jay Street roadway between Willoughby and Johnson streets, which is home to the Brooklyn DA’s office, will now officially be known as “District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson Way.”
The borough’s new DA, Eric Gonzalez, spoke about the late prosecutor’s impact on Brooklyn, and his ceaseless quest for justice.
“Ken’s commitment to safety, equity and fundamental fairness continue to guide me and our office,” said Gonzalez in a statement following the ceremony, which coincided with the fifth anniversary of his passing. “Having this street co-named after him will serve as a daily reminder of these bedrock principles that guided him – and continue to guide us today.”
Thompson’s widow, Lu-Shawn, said that her late husband would have been proud to see his name adorn the street in front of his office.
“There are no words to express how I feel right now,” she said. “I know Kenny would have been so proud and happy to have seen the street directly in front of his former office named in his honor. My children will have yet another example of the legacy and impact of their father. Through their father, they will know what it means to have a well-lived life.”
Thompson was elected DA in 2013, ousting longtime incumbent Charlie Hynes in a Democratic primary, and becoming the first African-American DA in Brooklyn’s history.
He was elected on a platform aiming to diminish the punitiveness and racial biases endemic in the criminal justice system in New York, and enacted several significant reforms in his brief stint as DA, which coincided with a national movement calling for an overhaul of policing, prosecution, and the broader criminal justice system.
He was among the first of a wave of “progressive prosecutors” elected in cities across the country who are attempting to use their position to advance criminal justice reform.
In a sea change, Thompson’s office declined to prosecute most low-level marijuana cases, which Gonzalez today describes as “the first step in the march toward legalization,” which was enacted in New York State this year.
Thompson also significantly expanded the office’s Conviction Review Unit to identify and free those railroaded by the system with little due process. During his tenure, the CRU vacated the wrongful convictions of 21 people. The unit’s work has slowed somewhat in the following years, with nine additional people being exonerated since 2016.
He also established a “Young Adult Court,” with federal funding, to handle misdemeanor cases for young defendants, and provide services and counseling to youths age 16-24 instead of incarceration. The court’s success was a point of inspiration for the successful movement to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in New York, which passed in 2017, and Gonzalez was selected to join the task force charged with implementing it.
Thompson also started a program called “Begin Again” which allowed Brooklynites with old summonses and warrants for minor violations like marijuana possession, open container violations, or walking a dog without a leash to get their records cleared. Thompson’s name now adorns a bill in Congress that would eliminate an age requirement for judges to be able to expunge low-level drug possession convictions.
Thompson’s tenure was not without controversy, however. In 2016, he was lambasted by the family of Akai Gurley, a Black man killed by NYPD officer Peter Liang in a stairwell at NYCHA’s Pink Houses in 2014, after recommending no jail time for Liang. Thompson had sought and won a manslaughter conviction against Liang, who was removed from the police force, but his decision not to seek incarceration for the officer was seen as a betrayal by many criminal justice reformers.
In October 2016, Thompson announced that he was suffering from cancer; five days later, he passed away at the age of 50. He was succeeded as acting DA by Gonzalez, his top deputy, who won a crowded primary the following year for a full term.