In Los Angeles and other large jurisdictions, deep-pocketed police unions use their spending power not only to appeal firing and discipline decisions on behalf of their members accused of wrongdoing, but also to influence elections and legislative outcomes.
In the case of elections, unions give millions of dollars to politicians they believe will protect law enforcement officers’ interests. Things get more complicated when that money is funding campaigns for district attorney.
The most obvious problem area is that district attorneys’ offices decide whether to charge and prosecute law enforcement officers accused of crimes — officers that are members of, and protected by, those same unions that pump hundreds of thousands — and in the case of big jurisdictions like Los Angeles, millions of dollars — into DA races. Critics of this current system say that the campaign cash (and prosecutors’ need to work closely with police, in general) creates a serious conflict of interest.
This is why four prosecutors, Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco DA George Gascón — who is currently running for LA County DA against incumbent DA Jackie Lacey — and San Joaquin County DA Tori Verber Salazar, have asked the California State Bar to “cure the conflict” by either amending the Bar’s rules regarding professional conduct, or by issuing an ethics opinion.
“Receiving an endorsement and campaign contributions from an entity that finances opposing counsel creates, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest for elected prosecutors,” the four wrote in a letter to the Bar. “District Attorneys will undoubtedly review use of force incidents involving their members. When they do, the financial and political support of these unions” might play a roll in the case outcome.
The California Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which are “binding on all attorneys licensed by the State Bar,” were established to “protect the public and to promote respect and confidence in the legal profession.” These rules were most recently updated on June 1, 2020.
The rules say that a lawyer cannot represent a client when “the lawyer has … a legal, business, financial, professional, or personal relationship with or responsibility to a party or witness in the same matter.”
“It is illogical,” said DA Becton, “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.”
In Los Angeles County, District Attorney Jackie Lacey has faced criticism and protests for failing to prosecute law enforcement officers accused of crimes. For example, when former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck asked for an officer to be charged in the killing of Brendon Glenn, an unarmed man who was homeless at the time, Lacey declined. In the few cases where Lacey’s office has brought charges against officers, the light punishments reflected a two-track justice system that works differently when police commit crimes. In the case of former LASD deputy Giancarlo Scotti, who was accused of rape and other forms of sexual violence by at least eight women in the county’s women’s jail, a sentence of two years in a fire camp, with no inclusion on the sex offender registry.
In the 2020 primary election, much of Lacey’s $2.2 million in campaign funds sent to political action committees came from LA’s law enforcement unions. The Los Angeles Police Protective League sent $1 million to an anti-Gascón political action committee, in the hope of keeping Lacey in office for another term. In the general election, the money from the unions has kept on coming.
In an email to LA Magazine in June, DA Lacey called cutting off campaign contributions from police unions “an extremely dangerous path to go down,” comparing it to blocking teachers’ unions from donating to school board elections. Lacey went on to criticize her opponent’s acceptance of “millions of dollars from a handful of billionaires from outside of our community.”
“I’m proud to be the candidate of organized labor, from law enforcement to truck drivers to steelworkers to firefighters,” Lacey wrote.
In July, the State Bar responded to the four prosecutors’ letter, by bringing up questions of constitutionality and equal protection issues. The Bar sent the proposed rule change to its Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) for further consideration. The committee has heard from the prosecutors and from members of the public via Zoom meetings. And the process is expected to last into the fall, at which point the committee will submit a report to the Bar’s Board of Trustees. (The CA Supreme Court must ultimately approve amendments.)
In its letter, the Bar questioned whether the proposal would “limit free speech in the form of a campaign contribution in violation of the First Amendment.”
During a COPRAC meeting last week, DA Boudin challenged that possibility.
“Our rule would survive First Amendment scrutiny because it is narrowly tailored to further the state’s compelling interest in maintaining public confidence in the integrity of prosecutors,” Boudin said, adding that “millions of people across the country have taken to the streets over the last several months to demand,” among other big justice changes, an overhaul of the prosecution machine that funnels Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color into jails and prison and community supervision, while failing to hold cops accountable for killing unarmed civilians.
“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,” said Gascón.
Updating the rules “would not only help to avoid conflicts and ensure the independence of elected prosecutors,” said Boudin, but it would also “enhance trust in our criminal justice system at a time when trust is sorely needed.”
The four reform-minded current and former DAs are not the only prosecutors who would like to see the flow of cash from unions to DA campaigns dry up, either. In a May 29 letter addressing police misconduct and the death of George Floyd, 40 elected prosecutors across the nation signed a letter of justice reforms that included a call for the American Bar Association to ban prosecutors from accepting campaign donations from police departments or unions.