by David M. Greenwald
DA Todd Spitzer was the star of the show on Monday evening even though he was the only candidate not participating in the candidate’s forum. Challengers Pete Hardin, Bryan Chehock and Michael Jacobs all participated in the forum.
An organizer from the OC DA Candidates Forum Coalition explained, “We are holding a chair for incumbent candidate Todd Spitzer in the case that he arrives for the forum—we reached out to their campaign. But unfortunately, they mentioned they would be unavailable for this forum.”
Question: I want to know specifically what you will do for rogue police officers who are not protecting and serving (the LGBTQ+ community), but are part of the problem.
Bryan Chehock: “I recognize this is an area in which we are failing miserably. I’m probably older than most people in this room. I mean, I remember the case of Matthew Shepherd and I thought, I think I had thought we were a long way from that. I mean, thanks to basically Justice Kennedy, the Supreme court had moved in a direction that I thought this was really not an issue for the vast majority of society anymore, but we’re seeing legislation like whatever they’re referring to, as ‘don’t say, gay bills’ and other pieces of legislation that is victimizing our L G B T Q community, again, and again, it is relatively trite, but I believe the only way that we can actually fix this problem is through education. We must do better as a police force, as a law enforcement community, as a justice system, to recognize that vulnerable populations, no matter where they exist, deserve the protection of law enforcement and the justice system. Now, the only way we’re gonna be able to do that is to educate and educate and educate.”
Michael Jacobs: “I think the main issue we’re talking about really isn’t necessary L G B T it’s really police accountability. and that’s been a real problem in Orange County for, I think the last 20 years or more. And I know myself from working in the district attorney’s office and hearing about the present administration, that there’s one deputy that’s responsible for keeping all cases where officers are suspects. And this one deputy is responsible for looking at them and deciding if they should be filed or not more often than not they don’t get filed.” He noted that Rackaukas received over $400,000 from the Sheriff’s Association, “And even though he lost, I’m sure Spitzer is counting on the same financing to come his way too. And it makes it a little difficult, I guess, for them to file cases on situations like this.”
Pete Hardin: “Our current district attorney has consistently throughout his 30 year career, as a politician attacked the rights of the LGBTQ+ community as a legislator. He voted against legalizing same sex marriage. And over the course of his career, the highest rate he’s ever earned from Equality California is 20%. We’ve got a lot of work to do, to build bridges with our LGBTQ+ communities with leaders in that community, across orange county. It’s not enough just to brag about prosecuting hate crime. Hate crime against that community is unsurprisingly growing out of control. How can that community feel safe meeting with Mr. Spitzer and trusting him to do the right thing when he’s worked against them, his whole career?”
Question: If you are elected, we’d like to know how you’re gonna ensure that we don’t take more money that should be used on housing and other solutions and invest them in the wrong pockets. And while you do that, what steps you’ll take to stop the cycle of people who are unhoused being arrested for non victim crimes?
Pete Hardin: “Well, the first thing that’s worth noting is that our current district attorney Todd Spitzer has been a no-show at the Orange County commission on homelessness. He regularly spoken out against the creation of shelters. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in the last three years, homelessness has skyrocketed over 40% in Orange County. As I’ve spoken about, we need to treat this as a public health crisis and not simply try and criminalize our way out of it. Look, the top 10 most prosecuted crimes in Orange County at a time when violent crime is rising are all low level nonviolent offenses. That creates a cycle of poverty, crime and homelessness by making it harder and harder for someone to find their next job or find a place to live.” He said, “Under my administration. We will either decline to charge or seek diversion for first time, , nonviolent low level offenses to be give people another shot to get back on the right track.”
Bryan Chehock: “I would agree that we really need to do more for our houselessness community. As I sort of mentioned earlier the real problem here for the vast majority of people that are in this transition state is drug use. The prevalence of drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine among our homeless population is off the charts. We need to do better in treating drug addiction as a mental health and a public health issue. We cannot simply prosecute our way out of cleaning up the streets. There has to be vehicles by which we take care of our vulnerable populations. That includes people that have mental health issues. There are obviously individuals that are for lack of a better term, temporarily homeless. They’ve lost their job. They’ve lost, sort of income, their transitional, those people can access public services and get the help they need. Somebody who is addicted to methamphetamine is not capable of making their own decisions in a way that would be productive to society. We have to help them get the help that they need. And it doesn’t matter if it’s their first offense or their 10th offense. If somebody is committing a non-violent crime, because they are addicted to methamphetamine and literally unable to control their actions, the criminal justice system is not the right place for them.”
Michael Jacobs: “I really think the problem with homelessness isn’t one dimensional or one problem. The problem that I’ve seen in the past is various cities and plans in California and outside, they try to use one prescription to fit everybody, and it doesn’t work. Governor Newsom just signed a bill where it includes actually forcing people into custody if it’s determined that they need mental health. I see some real legal problems with enforcing that. And I really question how beneficial it would be.”
Question: What specific actions would you take with your prosecutors and with your policies to eliminate and erase racial disparities in the entire Orange County criminal legal system? Please name specific instructions and specific policies you will enforce with your prosecutors to limit racial disparities again within the entire orange county legal system.
Michael Jacobs: “Mr. Spitzer a few months ago when he made some racial comments when reviewing a penalty on a capital case. And the problem is I think it has to do more with personalities and making the file decisions. In the DA’s office, just like in this county and just like every other county, there’s a wide range of discretion in filing. And only thing that I could see that could root out this problem for racism, at least in the DA’s office is to root out the attitude, racial attitudes that are often revealed by the comments like the one Mr. Spitzer made a decision regarding the case, which is really inexcusable and unforgivable, but it also exhibits a certain mindset that needs to be eliminated, or we will not have the fairness that we’re talking about.”
Bryan Chehock:”Unfortunately this problem is not limited to Orange County. If you go back through even in recent history, you have distinctions on the federal level between crack cocaine and cocaine. You have terminology like superpredators. These are problems that exist in the entire criminal justice system, not just Orange County or not limited to the Orange County district attorney’s office or the Orange County police force. There is certain legislation that is attempting to address that problem that has done a relatively decent job, Prop. 47 has seen a reduction in the differences between African American and white defendants. And that’s a good place to start, but we need to do a systematic review of all legislation to see what statutes make sense from a criminal enforcement standard and what are just perpetuating racial stereotypes. There was no reason to distinguish between crack and regular cocaine. And yet for years, that was a significant reason why African Americans were incarcerated for longer periods of time than white defendants for almost the exact same drug.”
Pete Hardin: “I pledge to reduce racial disparities in Orange County’s criminal justice system by increasing the number of, and access to diversion programs, assigning staff to examine cases for resentencing pursuant to AB 1540 and 2942. We’ve got an institute blind charging. We’ll decline prosecution, or seek diversion for first time, low level nonviolent offenses, ensuring that no one charged with a crime is locked up pretrial because of his or her inability to pay. In other words we will base bail solely on community safety, ending the prosecution of children as adults is another way we can root out systemic racism. Look, we know that people of color are vastly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Just how much they are in Orange County is unclear because Todd Spitzer runs his office as a black box into which we feed millions of taxpayer dollars and get no information in return. I pledge here and now to make the most open and transparent district attorney’s office in Orange County history by tracking statistics and allocation of resources and making them readily publicly available to you all so that you can hold leaders accountable.”
Question: What will you do to ensure that the district attorney’s office accurately applies the changed (police use of force law) law, because there is a law now and they do not rely on the previous legal standard in deciding whether to charge police officers who killed?
Pete Hardin: “One of our problems is that our current district attorney is bought and paid for by police unions. And he has been, throughout his 30 year term as a career politician and that creates a fundamental conflict of interest and degrades public trust in our criminal justice system. To avoid that I have committed from the beginning of my campaign to not accepting a dime from law enforcement agencies or unions.” He added, “As district attorney I’ll create a dedicated unit to review potential police misconduct cases. I won’t be afraid to charge law enforcement officers when they break the law. We’ve got to hold everyone to the same standard. The standard in criminal cases we have in this country is beyond a reasonable doubt. If we could prove a case against a police officer or anyone else beyond a reasonable doubt, we should charge it. But I also believe that the vast majority of police officers are heroes among us and deserve our support. And I will refuse to prosecute police officers just to earn political points.”
Michael Jacobs: “I think I can say from my career and my own experience, I agree with what was just said. It was for 20 years under the Rackaukas administration and for three years under this administration, there’s been almost blanket immunity for police misconduct and it goes all the way back, if you research it, you go back, look at the case of a victim named Chamberlain was killed in 2008 and there was obvious police misconduct there and it was covered up. It was covered up and people remember that case because there was clear cut liability and there should have been filings on some of the deputies involved and they did the most unbelievable complex cover up I’ve ever seen. They did a 52-page grand jury report without name, putting names in it. And I read that and I go, what good is that? What good is this? They didn’t want you to know who was involved and that mindset continues to this day.”
Bryan Chehock: “This is an incredibly difficult question and one that is not limited again to Orange County. Police accountability has been a difficult problem to address across the United States. that has almost fundamentally changed with George Floyd and other incidents. You see a more, more willingness within prosecutors to take on police unions and police officers who engage in misconduct. But however, what we really need in a district attorney’s office is an office that is more representative of the community. A community representative office will understand what that community is going through.”