Progressive DAs Join to Counter Power of Police Unions in California

(CN) — Four former and current progressive prosecutors are forming a new lobbying group in California to counter the influence of traditional law enforcement unions that often oppose criminal justice reform efforts.

“We are forming the Prosecutors Alliance of California to be a new law enforcement association that can speak as a voice for reform and help maintain our safety while we do so,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, the executive director of the new group who previously served as chief of staff for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

District attorneys from San Francisco, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties are joining forces to establish the new reform-minded organization. Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who is running for the top prosecutor job in Los Angeles this November, has also come on board.

During a virtual press conference Tuesday, Gascon said he was especially disappointed that several important criminal justice reform bills failed to advance in the California Legislature this year due to opposition from law enforcement unions like the California Police Officers Association and California District Attorneys Association.

State lawmakers did not push forward a bill that would require officers to intervene if they saw colleague using excessive force and to report the incident. Another bill that would establish a statewide process for disqualifying bad officers and blocking them from being rehired by other agencies also failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

“The only voices that many of our elected officials heard were calls from law enforcement on how this would ‘create less safety in our community,’” Gascon, a former Los Angeles police officer, said.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said traditional law enforcement associations like police unions have a financial stake in perpetuating outdated criminal justice policies. He said those policies — such as the recently reformed “three strikes” law of 1994 that allowed prosecutors to seek life sentences for a third felony conviction — have contributed to systemic racism, led to mass incarceration and failed to make communities safer.

“They have an interest in these failed tough-on-crime polices because over-criminalization leads to more police, more correctional officers and ultimately more money for the unions that represent them,” Boudin said.

San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Salazar, a Republican, is also joining the new alliance of progressive-minded prosecutors. This past January, Salazar quit the California District Attorneys Association, calling the group “out of touch” for taking positions against statewide criminal justice reforms.

Salazar said her top priorities include eliminating racial bias in the criminal justice system and making police officers more accountable for their actions.

Citing a recent incident of potential misconduct by a police officer, Salazar bemoaned the existence of two criminal justice systems — one for the police and one for everyone else.

She recounted how a police report on a protester resisting arrest was sent to her desk earlier this year, but she was never informed about a report that an officer had pushed the protester without justification — an altercation that was caught on video. When Salazar demanded information about the incident, she was told it was being investigated by the police department’s internal affairs department. No report on the incident will reach her desk unless that department decides the officer engaged in misconduct or committed a crime.

“That’s two different systems of criminal justice,” Salazar said. “If I hadn’t had the video and technology, I wouldn’t have known it existed. That’s one area where we need to shine a light.”

Soto DeBerry, the group’s executive director, said anti-reform positions by traditional law enforcement unions after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this past May that sparked protests across the country serve only to alienate police and prosecutors from the public they are sworn to protect.

She said some of those reactions were “quite disappointing and really the impetus for forming this group.”

The progressive prosecutors may still have a tough time countering the influence of the California District Attorneys Association, which until Salazar left represented all 58 county district attorneys in the state.

If Gascon is elected as Los Angeles DA this November, the number of elected prosecutors in the new alliance will grow from three to four. But the California District Attorneys Association will still represent more than 50 county DAs.

Soto DeBerry said the Prosecutors Alliance of California is inviting other prosecutors to get involved and join the conversation about promoting criminal justice reform.

“We are an open door,” Soto DeBerry said. “We welcome other elected prosecutors to join us.”

Representatives from the California District Attorneys Association and California Police Officers Association did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.

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