LOS ANGELES – In the wake of mass protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, a coalition of current and former elected prosecutors representing millions of Californians in diverse counties banded together to call on the California State Bar to cure the conflict of interest created by police unions’ outsized influence in local elections. The new rule would explicitly preclude elected prosecutors—or prosecutors seeking election—from seeking or accepting political or financial support from law enforcement unions.
“When videos emerge like the one depicting the killing of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery, the damage it does to the entire criminal justice system cannot be overstated,” said former District Attorney and Assistant Chief of the LAPD, George Gascón. “That damage, however, is further compounded by delays in the condemnation, arrest, and charging of the involved law enforcement officers. These feelings, these protests, and the pain we’re seeing, would not be as raw and widespread if we had seen police held accountable by local prosecutors quickly and with regularity. An important step in curing this pain is curing the conflict of interest that gives, at minimum, the appearance that police do not face consequences swiftly–or at all–due to the proximity and political influence of their union.”
“The legal representation of an accused officer is generally financed by their law enforcement union,” said Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton. “It is illogical that the rules prohibit prosecutors from soliciting and benefiting from financial and political support from an accused officer’s advocate in court, while enabling the prosecutor to benefit financially and politically from the accused’s advocate in public.”
“District Attorneys will undoubtedly review use of force incidents involving police officers,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “When they do, the financial and political support of these unions should not be allowed to influence that decision making.”
“We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us to restore trust in our profession, but trust must be earned, it cannot be demanded,” said San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar. “The first step to earning that trust back is ensuring the independence of county prosecutors is beyond reproach.”
Prosecutors are in a unique position of having to work closely with law enforcement and simultaneously evaluate whether crimes have been committed by these same officers. Recent events involving police misconduct in which prosecutors either delayed or failed to file charges have shined a light on the importance of prosecutors making decisions regarding law enforcement officers’ conduct without any undue influence or bias. Yet when prosecutors initiate an investigation or prosecution of an officer, the law enforcement unions often finance the legal representation of the accused officer. Prosecutors who have received an endorsement from the entity that is funding the defense of the officers being investigated or prosecuted creates, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest for elected prosecutors.
By precluding elected prosecutors—or prosecutors seeking election—from seeking or accepting political or financial support from law enforcement unions, the State Bar will reduce the presence of conflicts of interest and ensure independence on the part of elected prosecutors. This proposal also aspires to help reestablish community trust in the integrity of prosecutors at a time when national events have damaged that trust.
For more information, follow #CureTheConflict.
George Gascón grew up in Los Angeles after his family immigrated from Cuba. An army veteran, Gascón served as a Los Angeles Police Department Officer for 30 years, rising to the rank of Assistant Chief of Operations. In 2006 he became Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona, where he stood up to the hateful and anti-immigrant policies of then Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In 2009, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Gascón Chief of Police. Newsom turned to Gascón again in 2011 when he tapped him to be District Attorney to fill the seat vacated by an outgoing Kamala Harris who had been elected Attorney General. During his tenure Gascón implemented reforms that are being duplicated across the country while overseeing violent crime and homicides drop to rates not seen in 50 years. After being elected to two terms, Gascón returned to Los Angeles to care for his elderly mother and to be closer to his two daughters and grandchildren in Long Beach. Gascón is married to Fabiola Kramsky, a three-time Emmy Award winning journalist and recipient of the “Premio Nacional de Periodismo,” the highest recognition given to journalists in Mexico.