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California D.A.s Call For Ban on Police Union Money and Endorsements in Prosecutorial Elections

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and others say the money creates ethical conflicts when police are prosecuted for misconduct.

Law enforcement officers stand on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall as protesters gathered downtown on Tuesday.Photo by Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

A coalition of four current and former district attorneys called on the State Bar of California on Monday to ban law enforcement unions from funding district attorney campaigns, saying the contributions represent a conflict of interest that must be urgently addressed in the wake of recent police killings of Black men and women. 

In a letter to the state bar association, the reform-minded district attorneys said their colleagues cannot ethically prosecute police officers if they are receiving funds and endorsements from unions that finance those officers’ legal expenses. 

“District Attorneys will undoubtedly review use of force incidents involving police officers,” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said in a statement. “When they do, the financial and political support of these unions should not be allowed to influence that decision making.”

The role of law enforcement unions as deep-pocketed bulwarks against reform has come under increasing scrutiny in the last week after Bob Kroll, head of the Minneapolis police union, said the four officers involved in George Floyd’s killing last week were “terminated without due process” and people are ignoring Floyd’s “violent criminal history.” 

Police unions elsewhere in the country have also faced criticism. New York City’s second-largest police union’s Twitter account was temporarily disabled this week after it disclosed an arrest report—including personal information—of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter. 

Boudin joined three other current and former Northern California DAs—Diana Becton of Contra Costa County, Tori Verber Salazar of San Joaquin County, and the former San Francisco DA George Gascón—in calling for the bar to change to its ethics rules. 

Donna Hershkowitz, the interim executive director of the state bar, which licenses and regulates over 250,000 lawyers, said in a statement Monday that the bar had received the letter and is “reviewing the request carefully.”

But a ban on direct campaign contributions will have relatively little effect on the influence of police unions, said Robert Stern, a former attorney who has worked extensively on California campaign finance reform. He noted that the majority of their money is funneled through political action committees, or PACs, that are not subject to contribution limits.

The Los Angeles police union (LAPPL), through two PACs, spent $1 million toward defeating Gascón, who is opposing incumbent Jackie Lacey in a November runoff election for district attorney. Law enforcement groups also spent over $650,000 to oppose Boudin’s contentious run for San Francisco’s top prosecutor role. 

On Monday, the LAPPL focused its anger on Boudin and Gascón, accusing them in a statement of “exploiting the tragic and horrific death of George Floyd.” The union said there is no similar proposal to eliminate contributions from other special interest groups, including defense and civil attorneys. 

“It’s nothing more than opportunism, they very well know that the overwhelming majority that is spent in these type of races is from independent expenditures,” Tom Saggau, an LAPPL spokesperson, told The Appeal.

Stern said the bar is unlikely to regulate union spending or political support and a move to do so could run afoul of the First Amendment if taken to court.  

“It’s more of moral suasion than it would be law, I just don’t see how the unions would be stopped from doing it,” said Stern, who served as the first general counsel of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

Salazar suggested the rule would help prosecutors restore trust with the public. “The first step to earning that trust back is ensuring the independence of county prosecutors is beyond reproach,” she said Monday in a statement.