As millions march, calling for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, the responsibility for holding their killers accountable lies squarely in the hands of prosecutors. The will of the people is to have accountability for all criminal acts, regardless of who the actor is or their profession. That is the duty of a prosecutor. But all too often, prosecutors have failed to fulfill that duty, often declining to pursue charges against law enforcement, let alone securing a conviction. Those failures have struck deep blows to public trust in the justice system. Rebuilding that trust will require not simply policing reform, but also greater confidence in prosecutorial independence and the integrity of investigating and charging of police misconduct. And that confidence, as well as independence, can only be achieved through an end to financial ties between prosecutors and police unions.
A growing number of reform-minded prosecutors recognize this inherent conflict and have pledged to reject contributions and endorsements from law enforcement leaders and unions. To ensure systemic change, more prosecutors around the nation must join this pledge and the fight for police accountability, just as national and state bar associations – the entities that define the ethical standards that govern all lawyers – can propel reform by banning prosecutors from accepting contributions that erode both public trust and public safety.
Over the past 50 years, as the influence of most unions shrank with their membership, police unions grew and developed increasingly deep pockets. Police unions act as insurance for their members if they’re sued or prosecuted for misconduct – typically footing the legal bills to defend their members. But that insurance takes another form: lobbying for local laws that make it challenging if not impossible to hold their members accountable, and doling out significant donations to DA candidates in an effort to curry favor from local prosecutors who will be charged with holding police accountable once in office.
These contributions, spread across thousands of elections, are challenging to track, but they are pervasive. A recent investigation found that in the last two decades, police unions have engaged in at least $87 million in local and state spending, including $64.8 million in Los Angeles, $19.2 million in New York City and $3.5 million in Chicago. Most recently, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey benefited from over $2.2 million in expenditures by police unions, and the LAPD union donated another $1 million to a PAC dedicated to defeating her challenger, George Gascón, who has promised to toughen standards around police use of force.
Campaign contributions to prosecutors by individual defense attorneys or firms have already been called into question: Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance received significant scrutiny after he declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein and members of the Trump family who were represented by large donors to his campaign – but then embraced expansive reforms to address these concerns. Contributions by police unions should face even higher scrutiny. Prosecutors don’t simply decide whether or not to prosecute officers, every single day they work alongside officers and make judgments about their credibility and honesty and decide whether to initiate prosecutions and take away liberty based on those judgments. The conflict is clear – and any bias doesn’t just threaten public trust, it threatens public safety.
Nearly 50 District Attorneys and Attorneys General recently came together and pledged to no longer seek or accept endorsements or contributions from police departments or unions, and called on their colleagues to do the same. And now 42 have joined on to an expansive pledge singularly focused on this issue. But lasting and widespread change can be solidified by reform of state and local laws or the professional rules that govern all attorneys. And while laws can be difficult to change, the American Bar Association (ABA) can immediately reform how conflicts of interest are governed.
ABA rules already state that “a prosecutor who has a significant personal, political, financial, professional, business, property, or other relationship with another lawyer should not participate in the prosecution of a person who is represented by the other lawyer” (“Standard 3-1.7 Conflicts of Interest,” 2017). Additional clarity is needed. It’s time for the ABA and state bar associations to acknowledge political contributions from law enforcement groups or unions as a potential financial influence and to prohibit prosecutors from accepting such contributions and endorsements.
Police unions have repeatedly established themselves as opponents of accountability and reform. The president of the Buffalo police union recently defended two officers who shoved an elderly man to the ground. Days after the prosecutor in Minneapolis charged an officer with the death of George Floyd, the president of the Minneapolis police union called Black Lives Matter protesters “terrorists” and condemned the city for firing the four officers involved in Floyd’s death without “due process.” Police unions have opposed body worn cameras, transparent disclosure of disciplinary records, and civilian review boards. And these obstructionist positions aren’t recent ones. In the 70’s, police unions even opposed officers wearing name tags. In short, police unions are zealous opponents of any and all police accountability – so the time is now to protect our communities and ensure that these unions have no influence (and are perceived as having no influence) over prosecutors, whose core duty is to bring about equal accountability for all who break the law, including police officers.
Building community trust in the criminal legal system will require a transformation of policing and a transformation of prosecution: the return of power to the community, the radical downsizing of the criminal legal system, deep investment in public health solutions, transparency, and a truly equal application of the law. Removing police union influence from the prosecutor’s office is a critical first step towards building a system that is safe, just, and fair for all.
Buta Biberaj is the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Loudoun County, Virginia. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.