S. E. Williams | Black Voice News and IE Voice
On February 19, 2021, SB 710, the District Attorneys: Conflict of Interest legislation was introduced in the California legislature.
The bill, if successfully passed and signed into law, will require district attorneys across the state who have taken political donations from police unions, to recuse themselves from cases involving police officers or sheriff deputies—a conflict of interest that is of course, more than obvious.
However, since the bill’s introduction on February 19, 2021 it has remained stalled in the Appropriations Committee of the state Assembly since last August, “held in committee and under submission.” What this means is that the bill’s author and committee members want to work on or discuss the bill further and to date, the bill remains stuck in the Appropriations Committee.
A Working Relationship
It is understandable that district attorneys and police must work together due to the nature of their jobs. It is also understandable that prosecutors often rely on police as their primary witnesses and they work together often on a daily basis.
The problem or conflict in this regard is that district attorneys accept financial political support from unions or associations representing police officers and sheriff deputies.
In the meantime, many fighting for criminal justice reform believe district attorneys’ reliance on such campaign support impairs their ability to be objective when it comes to cases involving police officers which often becomes even more suspect because these same unions frequently provide legal defense for officers accused of the inappropriate use of force or other illegal actions while on duty.
Roles and responsibilities
The primary role of the District Attorney is to protect the community he or she is elected to serve. However, too often we witness more protection being given to accused officers–most who do not even live in the communities where they work–by local district attorneys, than the residents of the communities these district attorneys were elected to serve and protect.
Close relationships between district attorneys’ offices and the police has led criminologists, those who advocate for civil liberties, legislators, as well as families of those killed and injured by police, to call for an end to this conflict of interest.
In 1984 the California Supreme Court found in People v. Conner that a conflict of interest exists, “…whenever the circumstances of a case evidence a reasonable possibility that the DA’s office may not exercise its discretionary function in an even-handed manner. Thus, there is no need to determine whether a conflict is ‘actual’ or only gives an ‘appearance’ of conflict.”
From another perspective, although current guidelines are designed to ensure that prosecutors are disqualified whenever there is a conflict of interest that would impede defendant’s right to a fair trial, there are no current guidelines in place to prevent conflicts of interests when it comes to a prosecutors’ ability to fairly investigate and prosecute a police officer who allegedly commits a crime while on duty. This remains a roadblock to justice for those abused by rogue officers, especially those in Black and Brown communities.
As noted in the draft, SB 710 “is intended to eliminate the conflict of interest between prosecutors and peace officers—whether real or perceived—to protect the integrity of the prosecutorial function, support the fair administration of justice, ensure equal justice for victims of police crimes, and build public trust in law enforcement.”
A call to action
During the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of the 2020 Uprising, governments, businesses, nonprofits and others were running over one another to express commitments to work toward greater equity. But, nearly two years hence many priority issues remain unchanged including putting an end to the conflict of interest between district attorneys and police that has existed for generations.
The district attorneys and county sheriffs in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties must all face the voters this year. Perhaps we should ask where they stand on this important measure.
Color of Change has launched a petition demanding the state legislature pass SB 710. Follow this link to sign the petition or follow this link for information regarding how to contact your state legislators directly and demand this legislation move forward. It only takes a moment to let your voice be heard.
We should not leave it to others to act on our behalf. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires…the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
And, as we have also learned over generations, concern and dedication in the ongoing movement for change also requires action.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.