Same situation, same tragic end — this time in Sacramento, where marchers filled the air with screams, cries and chants of “No justice, no peace!” Their anguish and anger fueled by the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark. On Sunday March 18, the 22-year-old Clark became another grim statistic in the long list of unarmed black men gunned down by police. Watching the news reports of the demonstrations, one call out to the crowd stood out for me — someone yelled, “Let’s fire the people who fire the police!” Those words actually reflect a shift in strategy for some activists. No more singular focus on getting rid of accused police officers and police chiefs. Increasingly, activists are targeting district attorneys — often the last line of defense for police officers.
Sadly, it is common for district attorneys not to bring charges against police officers. Even so, it was shocking that nine days after Clark was shot, state prosecutors announced they would not bring charges in another deadly police shooting — that of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge in 2016. (The Justice Department had determined there was not enough evidence in May of last year.) But, just six days after the no charges announcement, the police department released a graphic police cam video of the Alton Sterling incident. Again, released after the cops actions were deemed appropriate. But, I defy anyone to watch that stomach-turning video and come away thinking the police officers’ actions didn’t lead to Sterling’s fatal shooting. And I don’t feel better that the police department released the video and simultaneously fired Blane Salamoni, the officer who killed Sterling at point-blank range. His partner, Howie Lake, was suspended for three days.
I know the law gives police officers wide latitude to shoot to kill if they feel themselves to be in imminent danger. And no matter the circumstance, pattern and practice suggest officers can rely on district attorneys to have their backs. How else to explain the failure to prosecute in notorious cases in Ferguson and Minneapolis and elsewhere?
It’s why activist Shaun King recently created the Real Justice PAC, or political action committee, to help elect what he calls “reform minded prosecutors.” Describing local district attorneys as “the gatekeepers of America’s justice system,” King says the PAC plans to distribute more than a million dollars to support progressives running for DA across the country.
Black Lives Matter, too, is working to target DAs with a track record of refusing to bring charges in police brutality cases. And, the nonpartisan ACLU has kicked off a national voter education and outreach campaign designed to explain district attorneys' impact on criminal justice. The group says more than 1,000 local prosecutors are up for election this November, including the campaign for Massachusetts Suffolk County District Attorney — long held by retiring Dan Conley. The Suffolk DA will implement the brand new criminal justice reform bill with big changes in sentencing and rehabilitation programs. Whoever wins the seat needs to know voters like me are looking for a DA who understands the priority is justice — not unconditional loyalty to police.