This week, San Francisco is leaning way forward in criminal justice reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, joined by Diane Becton, the first Black woman District Attorney in Contra Costa County, George Gascon, the former SF District Attorney and San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar called for the California State Bar to pass an ethics rule prohibiting prosecutors from accepting political donations and endorsements from law enforcement agencies and police unions.
Wow! This hits home in Alameda County. They decided to “Follow the Money!”
2018 – Follow The Money
In 2018, Republican Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern gave $50,000 to a campaign committee supporting incumbent District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. Ahern has been widely criticized for his cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. He gives immigration status information on people in the county jail to ICE, and sets releasees up to be picked up by ICE. He also signed a letter in support of Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General.
DA O’Malley is the only check on Sheriff Ahern, a fact that is particularly significant today. You see, Sheriff Ahern just placed Alameda County under curfew and is arresting peaceful protestors everywhere! Under Ahern’s leadership, the Santa Rita County Jail has earned a reputation as “the most dangerous place in the County.”
In 2018, political committees formed by law enforcement unions spent over $200,000 to help DA O’Malley hold onto her seat. Donors included local and state police unions of every size from around the state. Many of them also gave directly to O’Malley’s campaign.
In the last few days of the 2018 campaign, these political committees sent hit pieces with graphic images of child molesters throughout southern Alameda County to scare primarily white folks in believing that I was “soft on crime.” Apparently, it worked.
A Clear Conflict of Interest
DA Nancy O’Malley also accepted a $10,000 contribution to her DA campaign from the Fremont Police Officers Association. She received it at the same time she was investigating Fremont officers – including the union president – for the murder of 16-year-old Elena “Ebbie” Mondragon. Naturally, O’Malley cleared all of the officers of any wrongdoing after she got the contribution.
In 2018, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert accepted $13,000 in campaign contributions from the Sacramento police union while she investigated them for the murder of Stephon Clark. Needless to say, her office did not charge any of the officers involved in that killing.
On a press call Monday, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton acknowledged “We work very closely with law enforcement and we have to evaluate whether some of those same officers have committed crimes. . . . Across California there are dozens of law enforcement unions, representing rank and file police officers, sheriffs’ deputies, and correctional officers. and these unions play a major role in state and even local politics.”
According to courthousenews.com, Becton notes the current rules of professional conduct say elected prosecutors should avoid soliciting support from attorneys representing accused officers, and should recuse themselves from prosecutions that could give rise to a conflict of interest. But they are not precluded from benefiting financially or politically from groups that pay the attorneys’ fees for accused officers.
Too often, prosecutors act as if they are above the law. They rarely recuse themselves. They routinely fight efforts for independent outside investigation of cases where officers are accused of using deadly force.
Police Own Our Cities
Last year, the San Francisco Police Association spent over $700,000 trying to buy the DA election. As I pointed out then, every American city, county and state has a powerful police association, whether it be city police, county sheriff or state correctional officers. They defend crooked cops and threaten elected officials.
Technically, it is a union formed to advocate for better working conditions and pay for officers. In the real world, however, POAs are laser focused on doing whatever it takes to control elected officials. POAs are political action committees that spend millions of dollars every year to influence elections.
In every city, county and state, the POAs band together to reinforce repressive and racist policies. As we can see, these policies undermine the fabric of the community. In every progressive challenge to the status quo, look for the POA to be fighting back and holding the line. Usually in lockstep with the local District Attorney.
Waking Up the Democratic Party
In a real surprise twist, somebody is waking up the Democratic Party. Following the press release by Boudin, Gascon, Becton and Verber Salazar, the California Progressive Caucus took a position. In a call to action, the Caucus said:
“Since the power of the Democratic Party rests in good measure on its ability to raise almost unlimited cash that can be funneled into campaigns, that is where we should start with solutions. We must decline money from law enforcement organizations and stop funneling money to those Democrats that refuse to make Black lives a priority. We must declare loudly when law enforcement organizations are opposing measures to save Black lives and then we must mobilize support to counter them.”
In August 2018, Shaun King lamented the absence of the Democratic Party in the fight for criminal justice reform. He asked “Does the Democratic Party really care about black people or do they just want our votes?” In fact, the Democratic party has been heavily invested in the fight for criminal justice reform. Only on the wrong side of history – on the side of the police.
The California Progressive Caucus knows how to “follow the money.” Calling out centrist Democrats who accept police union money is a welcome development. Too often, police unions have been able to use their money to buy protection for bad cops and repressive policies.
Unfortunately, Alameda County is not alone in trying to protect bad cops and racist practices. Still, as San Francisco and Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties move forward, maybe we’ll take another look around. In the light of George Floyd’s murder, we know that is way past time “wake up. “