Time for DA Offices to Create Police Crimes Units

By Aram James and Richard Konda from the Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA)

The Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA) came into existence in 2003 after Bich Cau Thi Tran was shot and killed by San José Police Officer Chad Marshall. CJA has over the past 17 years been an advocate for humane policing practices including the banning of the use of Tasers by law enforcement. Members of CJA have participated on panels, addressing police misconduct, Taser task forces, city councils and other public bodies throughout the Bay Area. CJA has conducted workshops on police misconduct and also on the inherent dangers of Tasers.

The May 25th brutal, all most 9-minutes long, very public police torture and murder of George Floyd, set off, yet again, reexamination of both the history of police violence targeted at African-Americans, and the present moment in our history (now) of more of the same endless police murders. Nothing seems to change, except the names of the victims.

Our nation had a similar racial justice and police violence reckoning after another very public series of police murders. Eric Garner’s murder on July 17, 2014, and the murder of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, set that spark.

And, sadly, but predictably, there have been countless other, similar extrajudicial police murders, of both Black men and women. And almost without exception, charges are not brought and almost never do convictions result.

After each police murder, there are renewed calls for police reform, body-worn cameras, bans on choke holds, ban on Tasers, demilitarization of the police, better vetting in the hiring process of new police, civilian review boards with more teeth, independent police auditors, and the wholesale review of all police practices. But nothing yet has come even close to ending the cycle of police violence.

Uninterrupted, for 400 years, from the beginning of American policing, with its roots deeply tied to slavery, with slave patrols, and related institutions, all with an unrelenting desire to punish, exclude, segregate and control African-American bodies and souls. All actions consistent with the peculiar notion to perpetuate white power, white supremacy, and each seemingly imbedded in our culture and institutions in perpetuity.

And most certainly imbedded in our criminal injustice system reflected not only by endless police killings of people of color, but a system of mass incarceration, larger than any in the world, grossly disproportionally caging African-Americans, and people of color.

Recounted in Eddie S. Glaude JR’s recently released book: Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, are Baldwin’s comments, directly to the editors in an Esquire Magazine interview in July 1968 (speaking to the editors as though speaking to white America):

“In not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have a lot to face … All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history …. which is not your past but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.”

If our country is to survive, the time is now to confront our long and unabated history of race based police violence.

Policy Recommendations

Absent a complete defunding or abolition of police departments, we must have concrete and measurable ways to hold police accountable for their violent and racists behavior. Reform alone simply is not sufficient. History has repeatedly taught us this lesson.

If police see that they will not be handled by prosecutors with kid gloves, but, rather, like other community members — routinely be charged, prosecuted, and if the evidence warrants it, convicted for their violent crimes, and sent to jail or prison — trust in the criminal justice system will finally have a chance to develop in communities that for too long have been distrustful and estranged from a system that has given them no reason to trust it.

How do we get there? Every district attorney’s office in this country must have a robust police crimes team. This team must be fully independent of law enforcement and be given the sole ability to exercise charging decisions (prosecutorial discretion) to prosecute police without political pressure from police unions, elected prosecutors whose election is often perceived as depending on not prosecuting bad cops or if they do, making certain that any punishment is sufficiently light that bad cops are allowed to remain employed. Employed with a license to continue to terrorize the very communities they’ve been sworn to protect.

The police crimes team would be a multidisciplinary unit made up of retired police officers, former prosecutors, experienced investigators, former criminal defense attorneys, former victims of violent police crimes, academics whose specialty is the history and practice of policing. Each member of the team would be highly trained in the nuance of appropriate police practices and on-the job-conduct that crosses the line from good policing to criminal conduct.

This unit would also be charged with the responsibility of taking to jury trial each of the cases that the police crime team files. This would avoid the “trial for optics only syndrome.”

In the few deadly force cases that are actually taken to trial it is often a mismatch by design. The district attorney’s office, with no special unit trained to take on defense attorneys for the police — who often do nothing but defend police in their practice, are the heavy weight in the court fighting against an overmatched under trained prosecutor. No surprise that more often than not police who engage in deadly force and are actually charged walk free after a jury trial. The establishment of a robust police crimes team will finally even the odds for conviction.

Aram James is a retired Santa Clara County deputy public defender, a member of CJA and a co-founder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP), a grassroots legal advocacy organization located in San Jose. You can reach him at adjpd1@gmail.com.

Richard Konda is an attorney and executive director of the Asian Law Alliance and the chairperson of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA). Konda and James have challenged the Use of Tasers, and other forms of police misconduct by law enforcement for more than a decade. You can reach him at rkonda@asianlawalliance.org.

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