In an effort to boost the public’s trust of investigations into police shootings and other potential misconduct, Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta has announced new legislation that would require prosecutors to recuse themselves from those cases if they have received campaign donations from the union representing the officer involved.
The bill, which Bonta said he will introduce when the next legislative session begins in December, is being cosponsored by a new alliance of more progressive district attorneys formed last month to push for criminal justice reform efforts.
It could have widespread ramifications for police misconduct investigations, as Bonta noted the vast majority of California’s elected prosecutors have received contributions from law enforcement unions. Critics say that creates a conflict of interest when district attorneys have to decide whether officers who are members of those unions should face criminal charges for their actions on the job.
“When prosecutors review these cases, financial contributions from law enforcement agencies should not influence — or appear to influence — the decision-making of district attorneys,” Bonta said. The bill, he said, is “an investment in trust.”
But it is likely to face stiff resistance from the California District Attorneys Association, which represents prosecutors statewide. The association’s president, El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, rejected the idea that donations from police unions create a conflict of interest, and said the new legislation was politically motivated.
“It’s clearly hypocritical,” Pierson said. Bonta and other lawmakers, he said, “Should recuse themselves any time there’s a vote that would affect a group that has donated to their respective campaigns.”
The issue sparked controversy in Bonta’s East Bay district in 2018, when Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley faced scrutiny for accepting a $10,000 contribution to her re-election campaign from the Fremont Police Officers Association while her office investigated whether three of its members, including the union’s president, had acted appropriately in deadly police shootings. O’Malley later cleared the Fremont officers of wrongdoing.
She has defended the integrity of those investigations, but this summer an activist group said O’Malley told them she would no longer accept contributions from police unions.
“We need to restore trust in law enforcement, and in order to do that we must cure this conflict,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton, one of the four members of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, which is cosponsoring the bill.
Becton formed the alliance with San Francisco District Attorney and former Public Defender Chesa Boudin, San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar, and former San Francisco DA George Gascon, who is now in a contentious race for district attorney in Los Angeles County.
In June the four had called for the state bar to prohibit district attorneys from taking money from police unions altogether, an idea the California District Attorneys Association opposed.
Bonta stressed that his bill is narrowly tailored: Candidates for district attorney could still accept funds from police unions, and prosecutors would continue to investigate misconduct cases involving police officers whose unions haven’t given to their campaigns. The recusal requirement also would only apply to contributions directly to a campaign; donations to independent expenditure committees that might support or oppose candidates would not be affected.
If a local district attorney has to recuse himself or herself because of a police union’s contributions, California’s attorney general — or a special prosecutor if the AG has received donations from that same union — would instead handle the investigation and decide whether the officer or officers involved acted lawfully.
It is not yet clear how Bonta’s proposal will fare in Sacramento. Lawmakers introduced a slate of bills meant to overhaul law enforcement this summer, inspired by massive protests over police killings and racial injustice. But only a handful of more limited bills were ultimately signed into law amid opposition from police groups and a chaotic end to the shortened legislative session.
One of the new laws, AB1506, requires the state attorney general’s office to investigate fatal police shootings of people who are unarmed, regardless of whether the prosecutor accepted police union donations. Bonta’s bill is broader — it would affect any investigation that could lead to criminal charges against an officer.
Salazar hinted at the potential resistance the bill could meet from other district attorneys at a press conference Thursday.
“There (are) four of us here today,” Salazar said of the prosecutors in the alliance. “There should be more — there should be all 58 of us standing here today saying ‘I pledge to do this.’ But they are not.”