California is moving toward transparency for bad cops. As we learn more about the violence, biases, misconduct, dishonesty, and abusive acts of law enforcement (in spite of recent efforts by police to erase the evidence) it’s easy to focus on the role cops play in the streets. But equally if not more impactful is the role they play in the courthouse. In almost every criminal case, the prosecutor must call at least one police officer witness in order to prove the charges. Police are professional witnesses, trained to go under oath and testify as to their recollections, actions, findings, and practices. If making the arrest is the first half of their job, working with prosecutors and testifying is the other half.
This makes prosecutors one of the only checks on police power. And the system treats them as special: they speak for “the people.” They are vested with the unique power to choose whom to prosecute, when, and for what. They are the sole arbiters of the plea bargains in which over 90 percent of cases end. And they are, in the eyes of the law, given a distinct ethical obligation: to do justice. Defense attorneys are ethically mandated to fight for their clients, but prosecutors are trusted to weigh the evidence and seek the course that brings justice rather than a simple win. When a prosecutor relies on the testimony of a police officer with a history of bias, misconduct and dishonesty, she cannot possibly hope to do justice.
Los Angeles is suffering from a top prosecutor who has failed again and again to meet her ethical obligation as a guardian of the community. From going against her own police chief in refusing to prosecute a killer cop to going against the will of California’s voters in fighting reform, Jackie Lacey has fallen far behind her peers in safeguarding the public safety and trust, even remaining silent when Sheriff Villanueva re-hired officers formerly fired for misconduct. No American city more urgently needs a guardian than Los Angeles.
From Rampart to Rodney King, Los Angeles is still burning with police misconduct. Sheriff’s deputies continue to engage not only in gang-like behavior, but to function as actual gangs.Violent officers have been allowed to assault community members with zero repercussions or accountability. Local chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement have held weekly protests and called upon DA Lacey to take action in response to police violence (even setting up a town hall discussion where Lacey was a no-show), but she has refused, protecting the police while accepting maximum donations from law enforcement groups to her officeholder and campaign accounts. Mistrust between the community and those who have been charged with their safety and protection is toxically high, and rising as DA Lacey fails to act.
Since she won’t prosecute the worst of the worst, DA Lacey could at least choose not to build her cases on their shoulders. An officer with a history of lying, of reckless or aggressive misbehavior, or of racial bias (even on social media) isn’t a witness jurors want to trust–nor should they. An increasing number of prosecutors across the country are using “Do Not Call” lists to keep track of the cops who are too dirty to use in court. Deputy DAs are instructed not to call the officers as witnesses or grant their search warrant requests, because any case these officers build will be undermined by their own history of misconduct. Strong police unions often prevent bad officers from being fired, but prosecutors–in pursuit of justice–can, at the very least, minimize the harms these bad cops can do in the courtroom.
Jackie Lacey has failed to hold bad cops accountable for their actions, and has failed to enforce the wishes of the voters she supposedly serves. But a Do Not Call list is a common-sense policy that increases the integrity of her prosecutions and minimizes the harm of bad officers. By enacting it, she could show the city that she’s here to do justice, not merely seek wins or protect those in power. In a moment when we urgently need a change, here’s a change we can start with.
Patrisse Cullors is co-founder of Black Lives Matter, founder of Dignity and Power Now, California Director of Real Justice PAC and chair of Reform L.A. Jails.