Nashville considers implementing an independent police oversight board, and more

In This Edition of the Political Report

October 25, 2018:

  • Florida: Sheriff candidate pledges to withdraw from ICE partnership

  • Tennessee: Nashville considers implementing an independent police oversight board

  • Texas:  San Antonio DA candidate pledges to put ‘real teeth’ into cite-and-release

  • Texas: Marijuana prosecutions and bail reform at the forefront of Dallas DA race

  • Kansas: Candidate for attorney general centers campaign on criminal justice reform

  • Quick hits: The ACLU airs advertisement in Wake County, DeSantis speaks on platform

You can see previous coverage of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration on our website The Appeal: Political Report. The site also features tools with which to explore all completed and upcoming local elections that the Political Report has covered.

Florida: Sheriff candidate pledges to withdraw from ICE partnership

Federal courts have repeatedly ruled against local officials who hold people in jail beyond their scheduled release based on ICE “detainer” requests. In January, ICE and 17 Florida sheriffs launched a new bid to circumvent those rulings; they announced a new sort of agreement, which they claim will enable local officials to legally hold people suspected of being undocumented for 48 extra hours while ICE prepares to detain them. The ACLU disputes that the new mechanism changes the legality of ICE detainers. “The new scheme is simply a change in paperwork, with no relevant legal changes,” says the ACLU.

Among the 17 sheriffs who joined this partnership is Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, which contains Tampa. A Republican who was appointed to this office by Governor Rick Scott in 2017, Chronister is now seeking a full term.

While Chronister’s cooperation with ICE has drawn protests, local leaders from both parties have rallied around the sheriff. A month after his appointment, in October 2017, Chronister held a campaign kickoff with prominent county politicians, including Democrats like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and State Attorney Andrew Warren. Chronister then joined ICE’s new program in January; Buckhorn and Warren have since reiterated their endorsements of Chronister.

Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal and Chronister’s Democratic challenger, told me on Monday that he would “definitely withdraw” from Chronister’s new partnership with ICE if he were elected. He said that the agreement implements a “dragnet approach” as federal authorities can target people on the local jails’ databases even if they didn’t “have somebody that they’re looking at.” “All you’re doing is screwing with people,” Pruitt said, noting that “the stigma of how we participated” makes communities distrust local law enforcement and endangers public safety.

The Appeal’s George Joseph wrote an article that details other issues in the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office, including its “troubling opacity regarding custody jail deaths.”

Tennessee: Nashville considers an independent police oversight board

In the wake of a Nashville police officer shooting and killing Jocques Clemmons, a Black man who was running away, community groups have put a referendum on the November ballot to create an independent board empowered to investigate police misconduct. Clemmons’s mother led the group of activists who submitted the referendum petition to municipal officials.

“The community has been pushing for this for at least 40 years,” Theeda Murphy, an organizer with Community Oversight Nashville, told me. She said Clemmons’s shooting sparked renewed urgency. In July, days before organizers filed their petition, Officer Andrew Delke fatally shot another Black man, Daniel Hambrick, while he was running away. Delke was charged with homicide in September. The officer who shot Clemmons, Joshua Lippert, faced no charges.

The federal Department of Justice investigated Nashville’s broader policing practices in 2017. Its report recommended that the city consider creating an independent oversight board. In 2016, a group of researchers published Driving While Black, a report on police stops in Nashville that documents aggressive tactics and disproportionate targeting of people of color.

The Fraternal Order of Police and the Davidson County Republican Party are mobilized against the proposal; they argue that police officers are already held accountable through internal investigations and external offices like the district attorney. David Briley, Nashville’s Democratic mayor, says that he supports the idea of an oversight board but not this initiative, in part because of insufficient police input. “The current leadership of the police department under Chief Anderson has been extremely resistant to being accountable outside of the police department,” Murphy said.

Oversight boards elsewhere differ greatly in terms of what independent power they possess. Nashville’s proposed board would get to conduct a “full and complete and independent investigation, outside the purview of the police department,” Murphy said, because it would have the power to issue subpoenas and thus compel witnesses. This is a power that some boards lack.

There is also variation about what is done with the investigations. “Who is going to be the final entity who is going to be supportive of them, because they will be challenged?” Liana Perez, the director of operations of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, told me. Nashville’s would be an advisory board. It would issue recommendations to the police department and the mayor. But “the police department will have to provide a rationale” if “they choose to not follow recommendations,” Murphy said. In addition, the board would get to research issues beyond individual cases and provide policy suggestions to the mayor.

The initiative also provides that four of the board’s 11 members need to live in “economically distressed neighborhoods.” “We wanted to make sure that we went beyond” people who tend to already be represented, Murphy said, and achieved “significant representation from people who are left out.”

Texas: San Antonio DA candidate pledges to put ‘real teeth’ into cite-and-release program

Bexar County, which contains San Antonio, will soon have a new district attorney. That much has been clear since the Democratic primary, where Joe Gonzales defeated incumbent Nico LaHood. The Appeal described LaHood in March as a “death-penalty championing, Islam-bashing vaccine skeptic.” Gonzales now faces Republican nominee Tylden Shaeffer. Both men used to work in the district attorney’s office and are now defense attorneys.

Gonzales has emphasized his commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. “Part of my whole progressive philosophy about restorative justice is to give people an opportunity to avoid convictions, avoid being straddled with having convictions on their records,” he said in October. At the same forum, Shaeffer equated talk of restorative justice with “soft on crime” policies. He has similarly pitted criminal justice reforms against public safety elsewhere. “We can’t solve every single one of society’s inequities,” he said in March. “The number one goal is to safeguard the community.”

This contrast has sparked more specific disagreements—starting with policies toward marijuana. Marijuana prosecutions have increased in the county in recent years, according to data compiled by the Justice Collaborative. (The Appeal and the Justice Collaborative are a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy.) In 2018, Bexar County began a cite-and-release program that allows law enforcement officers to issue citations instead of making arrests over possession of small amounts of marijuana. But its effect has been limited because of various restrictions and because defendants need to pay a $250 fee to participate in this diversion program, aggravating the two-track justice system.

Gonzales said in October that he wants to “put some real teeth into the cite-and-release program” so that “people don’t languish in jail while they’re waiting to get their cases resolved.” Shaeffer has been critical of cite-and-release policies.

Gonzales also proposes pursuing bail reform. He says that he would seek personal recognizance bonds, which allow people to be released without posting bail, more frequently; his website also features a vague commitment to seek “reasonable bail.” Shaeffer has voiced skepticism that the county needs to reform its bail system.

The two also disagree on whether local law enforcement should cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Shaeffer backs the 2017 law (Senate Bill 4) that bars sanctuary policies and enables local officers to ask about immigration status, whereas Gonzales has warned that the law would have “chilling effects.”

You can listen to the entire candidate forum held on Texas Public Radio in October here; I found the exchanges on how to define restorative justice (around the half-hour mark) especially enlightening.

Texas: Marijuana prosecutions and bail reform at the forefront of Dallas DA race

Appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in 2016, Faith Johnson is now seeking a full term as district attorney of Dallas County. She is running as the Republican nominee against Democrat John Creuzot, a former state district judge.

The Justice Collaborative recently published a trove of data on the Dallas County criminal justice system; I wish to highlight three areas and how they intersect with the DA race.

First, marijuana possession cases represent a significant share of criminal filings in the county, and they disproportionately target African Americans. Since January 2017, the first full month of Johnson’s tenure, 10 percent of all new criminal filings have been misdemeanor marijuana possession charges, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration data. And more than half of the people charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession have been Black, the Justice Collaborative shows. (Twenty-three percent of Dallas County residents are Black.)

Creuzot says that he would dismiss first-time marijuana possession charges, but Johnson rejects that position. “What happens is that then I become my own god,” she said. “I won’t arbitrarily decide which laws I don’t want to enforce.” (Her stance that she could avoid exercising prosecutorial discretion contrasts with her statement to the Dallas Morning News that she would be “always using [her] wisdom” to decide to use “progressive” or “aggressive” prosecution.)

Second is the county’s bail system, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last month for producing “wealth-based detention.” After coming into office, Johnson had announced that she would curb pretrial detention over marijuana possession through cite-and-release policies and more personal recognizance bonds. But the Justice Collaborative has found little change since; the share of people charged with marijuana possession on whom bond has been imposed is the exact same in 2018 as it was in 2016. Being held in jail because one is too poor to pay pressures defendants to plead guilty; in both 2017 and 2018, defendants charged with marijuana possession on whom bail was imposed were twice as likely to plead guilty as those on whom it was not. In answering an ACLU questionnaire, Creuzot wrote that the bail system is unconstitutional and in need of statewide reform; he also indicated that he would support releasing people on personal recognizance for “most low-level offenses.” (Johnson did not answer the questionnaire.)

Third is the prosecution of homelessness, which often occurs through trespassing charges. Since 2017, at least 26 percent of the people charged with trespassing have been homeless. Bonds were imposed on nearly all of them, and more than 80 percent pleaded guilty. Creuzot has said that he would curb trespassing prosecutions, and has specifically committed to not arresting homeless people on trespassing charges alone.

Beyond mentioning a “goal of ending mass incarceration,” Creuzot has been more specific than many DA candidates are willing to be by agreeing to set a quantified target. “My goal is to reduce Dallas County state jail and prison unit admissions by 15-20% within a four-year period,” he writes in his ACLU questionnaire. Beyond the policies described above, Creuzot has said that he would make probation terms less restrictive and only seek to revoke probation for violation that threatened public safety—as opposed to a missed appointment, for instance—and has proposed more services to address issues relating to drugs or mental health.

Kansas: Candidate for attorney general centers campaign on criminal justice reform

Sarah Swain, a defense attorney and the Democratic nominee for attorney general in Kansas, has centered her platform on criminal justice reform. A new profile in the Topeka Capital-Journal focuses on her criticism of the war on drugs and her support for policies and programs that would decrease incarceration over drug offenses. “I believe mass incarceration is a failed experiment,” Swain said.

In answering a questionnaire prepared by the Capital-Journal, Swain writes about her support for legalizing marijuana and abolishing the death penalty. Swain’s Republican opponent, incumbent Attorney General Derek Schmidt, opposes both proposals.

Schmidt was already favored since Kansas typically votes Republican. But Swain’s chances got even tougher in June when Democratic leaders stopped supporting her after a report that she hanged a poster in her office that shows Wonder Woman with a tight lasso around the neck of a police officer. (As of Oct. 23, Swain is not included on the state Democratic Party’s candidates page.) In a statement, Swain said that the poster speaks to the “less-than-honest police officers” she has witnessed in her work as a defense attorney, and that it depicts a “lasso of truth” and “the rigors of cross-examination.”

Quick hits: The ACLU airs advertisement in Wake County, DeSantis speaks on platform

Wake County, North Carolina: The election for Wake County sheriff features a divide on immigration policy—Sheriff Donnie Harrison would continue the county’s 287(g) agreement with ICE, while Democratic challenger Gerald Baker would withdraw from it—but I wrote two weeks ago that the issue has struggled for visibility in English-language media. The ACLU launched an ad this week that aims to draw attention to the county’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The ad discusses Harrison’s “anti-immigration agenda” and his “special agreement” to “detain immigrants using local resources.” An ACLU official said the organization is spending $100,000 on airing the advertisement.

Florida: Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for Florida governor, has outlined a far-reaching criminal justice reform agenda, but his opponent Ron DeSantis has largely avoided developing a precise platform, I wrote in August. In a new article by the Florida Times-Union, Andrew Pantazi describes DeSantis’s continued reluctance to provide specifics, but also provides clarity on DeSantis’s broader orientation: DeSantis does not believe that Florida needs to decrease its incarceration rate, and supports mandatory minimum sentencing and the state’s existing restrictions on parole. “To DeSantis, any retreat from the state’s tough-on-crime policies is an offense to police and will reverse the state’s 50-year low crime rates,” Pantazi writes.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.