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Prosecutors Call To End Conflict Of Interest Between Police Unions And Attorneys

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Protesters are demanding that policing must change in the U.S. But how? Proposed reforms include restricting police use of deadly force, creating a shareable database of abusive officers and redirecting taxpayer money towards social programs. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, one key reform has received less attention - the potential conflict of interest between prosecutors and police unions.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: When district attorneys run for the office, they get political donations from a range of interests, including powerful, well-funded police unions who represent the cops the DAs will be called to prosecute in the event of officer abuse of force, corruption or other misconduct. Diana Becton, the district attorney of California's Contra Costa County, says that potential conflict of interest has exacerbated a crisis of trust in law enforcement; a sense the system is hopelessly rigged when it comes to prosecuting bad cops.

DIANA BECTON: We need to do everything that we can in this moment to avoid not only actual conflict but to avoid the appearance of conflict if we hope to rebuild public trust and confidence in our system at a time when it is so, so sorely needed.

WESTERVELT: Becton and a handful of other California DAs are now calling on the state bar to ban, quote, "elected prosecutors or prosecutors seeking election" from seeking or accepting political or financial support from law enforcement unions. Traditionally, few police are prosecuted or convicted, even when there's seemingly overwhelming evidence of excessive force. That fact has only inflamed tensions and widened that trust gap. The examples are numerous. Eric Garner, killed by police in New York - no indictments. Michael Brown, shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. - no grand jury indictments. Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore police custody - no convictions, all officers cleared by state and federal probes - and on and on. So DA Becton says this is not some hypothetical problem. It's a real one.

BECTON: I'm receiving money from their unions. And at the same time, I am going to be investigating possible instances of misconduct. Would you say, hmm, I wonder if she's going to be fair to both sides?

WESTERVELT: Becton says that perception of potential conflict undermines the system. That's why activists and some attorneys have long called this kind of rule change vital to increasing police accountability, yet little has changed. Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's DA, has joined Becton in calling for getting police union money out of DA offices and campaigns. Boudin hopes the reform effort grows and gets the attention of the American Bar Association.

CHESA BOUDIN: I think there's an opportunity for San Francisco and California to play a leadership role as the whole country is now focusing on what kind of reforms are necessary to restore trust between communities and law enforcement. What sort of reforms are necessary to ensure equal enforcement of the law? We need systemic change.

WESTERVELT: Yet the nation's highest court has repeatedly ruled that campaign spending is a form of protected speech. And Dustin de Rolo with the San Francisco Police Officers Association says this is simply an effort by a small group of liberal DAs and what he calls criminal apologists to exploit the horrible death of George Floyd to score cheap political points. DeRollo says it's telling that these prosecutors aren't also asking for DA candidates to stop taking contributions from criminal justice reform groups, well-heeled defense attorneys and private corporations.

DUSTIN DEROLLO: So if the concern truly was legal conflict of interest, how come they aren't addressing those issues? The reality is as an officer of the court, as a district attorney, you should be able to set aside your politics from what you sworn an oath to do. And if you can't do that, then turn in your bar card. Don't seek public office because that job's not for you.

WESTERVELT: The State Bar of California says it's reviewing the DA's request to ban police union contributions, but it's not clear when or if the nation's largest bar might take action to bring the #CureTheConflict closer to reality.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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