SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A coalition of current and former district attorneys called on the American Bar Association and the California State Bar on Monday to pass an ethics rule prohibiting prosecutors from accepting political donations and endorsements from law enforcement agencies and police unions.
The request follows a weekend of mass demonstrations against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer who has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder.
“I think it’s apparent to all of us today that America has a crisis of trust in law enforcement. That is why we’re asking the state bar to take this item up immediately, to cure the conflict,” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said.
The district attorneys, who review use of force incidents and make charging decisions against police officers, said they must cut money and politics out of the equation to help build the public’s trust in the judicial system.
“We work very closely with law enforcement and we have to evaluate whether some of those same officers have committed crimes,” Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said on a press call Monday. “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.
“We work day in and day out with them, every day. And so there is a relationship there and there’s no denying there’s not,” San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said. “And that doesn’t impair or impede our ability to be fair and in order to do that we have to have that distancing and we have to have that disconnect. Their political endorsements are provided only to candidates who they believe share their particular vision on public safety and whom the believe will advance their interests.”
Becton said the bar’s 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.
“These rules do not preclude the attorney or prosecutor from receiving or soliciting financial support from an individual or organization that is financing opposing counsel,” Becton said. “That needs to change.”
The new rule, if enacted by the state bar, would close that loophole.
Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who resigned from office in 2019 and is now running to unseat Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey, said, “Police organizations are very active politically endorsing elected district attorneys, funding parts of their campaign. The influence or appearance of influence based on that money further erodes the moral authority of the entire system.”
Gascon, who was appointed to the job in San Francisco by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in January 2011, said on the press call that he accepted financial support from the San Francisco Police Officers Association when he ran for election in November of that year.
“During my 2011 I took contributions from the SFPOA and the San Francisco Sheriffs Association. I didn’t in 2014 because I felt that it was inappropriate and I wouldn’t today as I’m running from L.A. District Attorney,” Gascon said. “So yes, I did in 2011, didn’t on my re-election campaign purposely and intentionally, and would never do so again.”
He added, “I suspect that would probably not have endorsed me anyway” given his “inquiries into some of the corruptive practices going on” in the San Francisco Police Department.
The SFPOA did not return a phone call seeking comment on the proposed ethics rule.
SFPOA President Tony Montoya said in a statement that Gascon and Boudin are political opportunists looking to capitalize on Floyd’s death.
“It’s no accident that two of California’s most ardent criminal apologists want to ban unions and the rank and file police officers we represent from informing our communities about candidates who have a direct impact on their safety. George Gascon and Chesa Boudin are political opportunists who are trying to further their political careers by exploiting the tragic and horrific death of George Floyd, its shameful,” Montoya said. “If any attorney running for office does not have the moral and ethical principles to separate politics from their sworn duty, they should turn in their Bar card and not seek public office. It is also telling that there is not a similar proposal to eliminate contributions from special interests who have more direct conflicts, such as high-priced defense and civil attorneys, so-called criminal justice reform groups as well as corporate interests.”
“What happened to Mr. Floyd is wholly and completely unacceptable and we spoke out strongly this past Thursday about the failure of those officers. Our deepest condolences are with Mr. Floyd’s friends and family and the time for meaningful dialogue to actually do something must begin,” Montoya added.
The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and California Peace Officers Association did not respond to requests for comment.
California State Bar Interim Executive Director Donna Hershkowitz said the Bar was “reviewing the request carefully and determining the appropriate next steps.”
Gascon said a rule change of this type is not unprecedented, as it extends existing restrictions around prosecutors taking money from individuals representing those who are being prosecuted.
“I don’t see this as a major leap,” he said.
“A very minimal, necessary first step is to ensure there are no conflicts of interest,” Boudin said, adding, “I think we need to go further.” He said he plans to announce more changes in the way his office reviews allegations of use of force by police. “We need to be transparent, systematic and accountable,” he said.
Salazar said communities have to be part of the discussion surrounding officer involved shootings and use of force.
“We learn so much from having the community at the table,” she said. “Now when we release a statement regarding what happened in a critical incident that is uncharged, we would say we spent hours with a victim’s family and we talk them through and allow them to look at the evidence and hear the law and why we made the decision we did. We do the same with the officer’s family. Because we have to learn.
“Even if the case is a justifiable there’s still need for training and understanding and when it’s not, it must be charged and it must be charged in a timely manner because that increases and enhances the ability of the community to believe and trust in us.”