By Elizabeth Cho
Four California district attorneys wrote a letter to the Chair and Interim Executive Director of the California State Bar in June, proposing that prosecutors should be banned from accepting police union contributions—this came exactly one week after the death of George Floyd.
In a two-page letter written by Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton, former San Francisco DA George Gasćon, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and San Joaquin County DA Tori Verber Salazar, the current and former DAs banded together to call out the conflict of interest (or at least the appearance of one) that had and currently has the potential to interfere in police-involved investigations.
In the letter, the DAs charge “[Police] unions play a major role in local, state and even national politics.”
When prosecutors are trying to be elected, obtaining the endorsement of a powerful organization can often secure their win, they said, adding that police unions almost always endorse candidates “whom they believe will advance their interests.” Not only does their endorsement come with a political aspect, but it also is backed by their financial support, they said.
According to the Cornell Law School, a DA’s “duties typically include reviewing police arrest reports, deciding whether to bring criminal charges against arrested people, and prosecuting criminal cases in court.” If a police officer commits a crime, it is up to the DA in that area to decide whether or not to charge them and what to charge them with.
But if a DA has been backed politically and financially by a police union, they may have less incentive to charge or investigate police officers.
“When prosecutors initiate an investigation or prosecution of an officer, law enforcement unions often finance their members’ legal representation. Receiving an endorsement and campaign contributions from an entity that finances opposing counsel creates, at minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest for elected prosecutors,” they wrote.
This conflict of interest appears to have significant consequences.
Since 2005, there have only been a few officers charged for murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting that were convicted. Only five (not counting convictions that were later overturned) were convicted for murder. The highest number of convictions per charge was for manslaughter, which has the maximum sentence of eleven years in state prison or probation up to one year in the county jail in California.
Through this proposal, the DAs said they hope to enact some long-needed systemic change.
“We need to do everything that we can in this moment to avoid not only actual conflict but to avoid the appearance of conflict if we hope to rebuild public trust and confidence in our system at a time when it is so, so sorely needed,” Contra Costa County DA Becton said.
San Francisco DA Boudin agrees, stating, “What sort of reforms are necessary to ensure equal enforcement of the law? We need systemic change, a new approach that ensures transparency and accountability. That will change the culture.”
But the road for this proposal is not easy.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association has already spoken out against it, saying that “this is simply an effort by a small group of liberal district attorneys and what the union calls ‘criminal apologists’ to exploit the horrible death of George Floyd to score cheap political points.”
There is also the added issue of free speech for unions. In the famous Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, the Court decided that “limiting ‘independent political spending’ from corporations and other groups violates the First Amendment right to free speech.” And the Supreme Court has continued to uphold that decision to this day.
However, this is not to say that all CA police unions are against reform within police departments.
In June of this year, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, the San Francisco Police Officers Association and the Los Angeles Police Protective League “introduced a reform agenda to improve outcomes between police officers and their communities and ‘root out any racist individual’ from their ranks.”
The plan outlines several action items, including a “national database of former police officers fired for gross misconduct that would prevent other agencies from hiring them.”
“We can’t keep saying, ‘Oh this is one bad apple.’ We need to be honest; we need to be candid. Yes, there are racist police officers,” Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officer Association said.
This proposal comes after months of (and ongoing) calls to “Defund the Police.” In many cities protesting for Black Lives Matter, the police have been using tactics such as teargas, pepperball rounds, rubber bullets, batons, pepper spray, physical attacks, even cars, to quell them. Oftentimes, these tactics incited further chaos and violence.
Since George Floyd’s death, there have been at least 635 cases of police violence incidents during protests in his name.
One of these incidents took place in Long Beach. On May 31st, KPCCA/LAist reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was at a protest, mainly to interview people there. He claims that the protest was peaceful until the Long Beach police arrived. During the protest, “about 200 people kneeled on one knee as they faced about two dozen police officers in riot gear.”
At the time, Guzman-Lopez had just finished interviewing a protestor when he realized that he was one of the few that were still standing. And that led the Long Beach police officers to start shooting at him with rubber bullets, one of which hit him in the throat.
Interestingly enough, on the Long Beach Police department website, it states that their vision is “To Provide a Safe City for All People.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, nor is it the most violent. There have been multiple protestors, news reporters/journalists, legal observers and protest bystanders, who have been hospitalized and even permanently disabled due to police violence.
After months of unrest and calls for real change, these DAs hope that this proposal will help to bring criminal officers to justice and hold the police more accountable for their actions. The California State Bar has not commented as of now, but has assured the DAs that they are carefully reviewing the proposal and its ramifications.
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