Could a Black D.A. finally help reimagine Alameda County’s regressive criminal justice system?

Irina Baranova

What civil rights attorney Pamela Price remembers most about her failed bid to unseat Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley in 2018 are the tearful phone calls and hugs she received from Black county residents thanking her for running.

Price lost by a double-digit margin. Most of her support came from low-income Black and brown neighborhoods, while whiter, affluent suburban areas backed O’Malley.

“It was an emotional couple of days,” Price recently told me.

That’s because her supporters were certain that their voices were largely absent from prosecutorial decision-making in Alameda County. Every district attorney in the county’s 168-year history has been a white man except for O’Malley, a white woman. None were champions of transformative justice.

And it has showed.

Black people are roughly 20 times more likely to be incarcerated in prisons than white people in Alameda County. It took O’Malley roughly a decade to bring charges against an officer for killing in the line of duty. In September 2020, she brought voluntary manslaughter charges against a police officer who shot and killed Steven Taylor in a San Leandro Walmart while Taylor was holding an aluminum baseball bat. The shooting happened in April 2020, roughly one month before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. The county also has multiple problematic police departments, including Oakland’s, which has been under federal oversight since 2003 due to police misconduct. And some of the Bay Area’s largest law enforcement-related wrongful death and excessive force payouts involving Black and brown victims have occurred in Alameda County over the last decade.

But change might finally be on the horizon.

O’Malley, who was appointed district attorney in 2009 and ran unopposed in 2014, won’t seek re-election in 2022. She also pledged not to appoint a successor, which breaks decades of tradition in Alameda County. If she had, however, her main choices would have been Black candidates.

Price, Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley and Deputy District Attorney Jimmie Wilson are all campaigning for the top cop role. Of all of these people, Price’s name might ring as the most familiar to voters.

Her 2018 campaign against O’Malley was the first contested district attorney’s race in Alameda County in about four decades. Price campaigned on an aggressively progressive platform that highlighted how the policies of district attorneys like O’Malley only exacerbated racial inequity in the criminal justice system.

It didn’t work out for Price, but Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascón in Los Angeles won their elections behind similar campaigns in their respective counties in 2019 and 2020. Now, they’re being targeted for recalls led by conservative forces who blame them for a pandemic-related crime surge — the solutions to which are certainly much more complicated than two progressive prosecutors looking to end mass incarceration can handle on their own.

Alameda County doesn’t get the same national spotlight as Los Angeles or San Francisco, but the stakes are just as high. That’s because O’Malley and the district attorneys before her have all played a part in shielding the Alameda County justice system from change.

A 2021 report from the ACLU of Northern California and the Urban Peace Movement, a youth organization, revealed that between 2017 and 2018, roughly 60 percent of the charges the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office brought against adults were for low-level offenses “that either should have been directed to diversion programs or not charged at all.” And when it comes to decarceration efforts between 2017 and 2018, the District Attorney’s Office worked against the concept by opposing the “release of incarcerated people in 70 percent of all parole hearings it attended and without documenting any justifications for taking those positions.”

When a county’s district attorney’s office shows it supports the fallacy that mass incarceration is a key component in reducing crime, a standard gets set for the cities within its borders.

This might explain why Oakland was home to some of the loudest calls for reimagining public safety in 2020 —and yet the city decided to increase police funding by $38 million over two years in June. Or why in August Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf called in the California Highway Patrol to help address crime and enforce traffic laws on city streets, despite concerns from Black, brown and Asian activists over the dangers over-policing communities of color. Oakland’s current budget includes roughly $18 million to be directed to policing alternatives, a total that pales in comparison with the Police Department’s overall two-year budget of around $675 million.

“We are progressive until it comes to race in Alameda County and that’s the dividing line,” Price said. “That’s when you see people take sides and close their eyes to the truth.”

In other words, it isn’t enough for Alameda County to simply have another “progressive” district attorney. It needs one with lived experiences that make them capable of understanding the justice system’s disparities.

Alameda County is long overdue for a Black district attorney.

This is a historic race deserving of the same attention being paid to the district attorney’s offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. What happens next will determine whether the post-George Floyd movement for racial justice is still alive in the Bay Area’s most populous county, or if its justice system built and sustained by white elected officials over generations will prove itself to be impervious to change once again.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Justin Phillips appears Sundays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JustMrPhillips

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