U.S. Politics

Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign—who can be a district attorney or sheriff?

This week, though, I am going to talk about what makes a sheriff or district attorney the kind we want to elect.

Understanding the problem of bad sheriffs

The Republican talking point around sheriffs is that they are law-and-order tough guys. They imagine the ideal sheriff being like Tom Selleck on Blue Bloods — always right, with activists and those concerned about policing methods normally wrong. In truth, great sheriffs listen to their community and do a great job protecting all of its members; they are not the sheriffs Republicans seem to prefer, those that often fit harsh stereotypes of law enforcement.

Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a great example of the latter, as Joanna Allhands of the Arizona Republic reports:

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s negligence with firearms is worse than we thought. Way worse. An ongoing audit revealed that the department has no idea where 29 fully automatic firearms have gone.  ... Some firearms were handed out haphazardly to officers – sort of a “hey, we’ve got new guns. You want one?” system. Even worse, Penzone said, some officers were issued seized firearms (you know, the ones used in crimes and such) after they were forfeited, apparently with little to no paperwork tracking them. In fact, the Arpaio-era accounting was so bad that deputies conducting the new audit largely had to rely on federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives records to learn exactly how many fully automatic firearms were missing from their department.

The Associated Press notes:

 Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's top aide violated a policy requiring him to be truthful in his job when he claimed in court that he didn't know about a judge's order that Arpaio had famously disobeyed until two years after it was issued, investigators concluded in a report released Monday.

In many cases, these sheriffs go unchallenged or untested, sometimes for decades at a time. But enforcing the law—the methods and means by which we do it, and how we do it—would seem to be straightforward. In a 2014 diary here, a user wrote about what makes a great sheriff:

3) Community policing also extends to working well with other agencies. This is the opposite of the "lone ranger" concept that Republicans tend to promote. In the Matt Bostrom version of community policy, the words of "working together", "collaboration" and "along side" are used to work with other agencies. Working together also means that resources are shared meaning with less cost to the community. I have seen crisis preparedness practices with as many as 7 agencies working together. Sheriff Matt Bostrom describing community policing in a questionnaire: The Saint Paul Police Department is nationally known for community policing, which is a strong partnership between the Saint Paul police officers and the community, working together to solve problems. Part of community policing is building trusting relationships within the community and other law enforcement agencies. Community policing is further built upon strong collaborative relationships between multiple agencies. I will bring these concepts of community policing and collaboration to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department and will strive to make it one of the finest public safety agencies in the State of Minnesota.

The diary as a whole is a solid write-up of what makes good policing great for a community, and how we can keep our communities safe without lone rangers.

What it takes to be a district attorney

Running for district attorney, county prosecutor, city attorney, or any other elected judicial position of course requires the candidate to have a law degree and an active admission to the bar. Too many Democratic activists, though, seem to think it has a lot of other requirements, and as a result, they don’t reach out to eligible legal reformers. When those legal reformers do run, though, they can help better represent their districts.

Ferguson, Missouri, is a perfect example, as the New York Times reports:

As protesters faced off against police officers in the streets, [Wesley] Bell was forced to leave his home. As a black lawyer, he understood the protesters’ outrage, but he felt like the best way to fix the system would be from within. First, he ran for Ferguson City Council and won. And on Tuesday, in a Democratic primary race, Mr. Bell beat Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor who declined to charge Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Mr. Brown. It was the first time that Mr. McCulloch, who had held the job for 27 years, had faced an opponent in an election since the Ferguson protests, when critics accused him of being too close to law enforcement to properly oversee the investigation into Mr. Brown’s death.

Change agents can make powerful candidates in a race for district attorney. There are numerous practicing attorneys who see the real need for reform in the way our district attorneys operate:

“I’ve always disagreed with the approach and the philosophy of that office,” Mr. Bell said of Mr. McCulloch’s leadership in an interview on Wednesday. “We ran on a platform of expanding diversion programs, reforming cash bail, treating people fairly, giving them a fair shake.” In 2015, Mr. Bell, a defense lawyer who moonlighted as a municipal court judge, won a seat on the City Council after promising to address many of the issues that protesters were angry about. He sought to put a stop to the city’s practice of raising revenue through large fees and fines levied by police officers in minor traffic stops, and he tried to bring protesters into the political process by appointing them to committees and boards.

In meetings all over the country, I run into Democratic attorneys who want to change the way in which our courts and legal system function. They understand the undue hardships faced by communities, but rarely do they have someone reach out to them and begin a conversation on whether or not they, or someone they might know, should run for district, county, or city attorney. The chief complaint I hear is that they do not believe there is a support system for these races; “no one pays attention,” they assume, and as a result, they choose to sit them out.

Building an action plan

Part of recruiting these candidates is to make sure that your Democratic organizations, from your county party to Swing Left, your local Indivisible chapter to Pantsuit Nation and other groups are kept aware of these local races. Have discussions about what makes for a good sheriff or a good district attorney. By bringing up these issues and talking about community policing, diversion programs, and public safety, you start to build a pathway for people to consider running for these offices.

If your state party has a caucus of elected officials, then work to strengthen that organization, which can be used to keep track of your local races and provide granular reports to those who are interested in fundamental local change. If it doesn’t, work on creating one. Bringing together locally elected officials can help identify opportunities in all races, but local city council members, mayors, and others can be very important in identifying counties and cities that are most in need of a change within the law enforcement hierarchy. 

Next week on Nuts & Bolts: Retention elections and state appointments


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