Editor’s Note: LZ Granderson is a journalist and political analyst. He was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University. He is the sports and culture columnist for the Los Angeles Times and co-host of ESPN LA 710’s “Mornings With Keyshawn, LZ and Travis.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @lzgranderson. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In 2012, Jackie Lacey made history. Not only did she become the first woman to serve as Los Angeles district attorney, she was also the first black person in the job. Lacey was born and raised in Crenshaw, and her victory appeared to represent a significant change for an office routinely criticized by community leaders for its slothful response to police brutality and corruption.
Fair or not, perhaps this reality helps explain why protesters in Southern California felt the need to shut down a major highway and flood the streets of downtown Los Angeles Friday night in solidarity with Minneapolis.
In Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, the former police officer seen on video kneeling on 46-year-old George Floyd’s neck, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. (He has not yet been arraigned or entered a plea; his bail has been set at $500,000.) The three other officers connected to Floyd’s death have been fired, and one hopes they will face charges as well.
Eventually the uprisings in Minneapolis will subside, as well as the protests and community unrest peppered throughout the country, including in Lacey’s backyard. The camera crews documenting all of this will disperse as well.
And we will be left with one pressing question: Now what?
It’s intellectually dishonest to say we will return to “peace” and “quiet” because this country has never been at peace. We’ve had moments of quiet, albeit uneasy quiet, but never peace. How can a nation born out of genocide, built on slavery, and sustained by a system which places minorities firmly behind their white counterparts in every significant socioeconomic measurement by a considerable margin have peace? In fact, I would dare say all of these elected officials on TV clamoring for things to get back to “normal” are part of the problem.
“Normal” is not only what got us here, it is what keeps us here. What this nation needs is to move forward, and stories like Lacey’s — with her paltry prosecution of use-of-force — make it apparent what the first step needs to be.
There is an uncomfortable, symbiotic relationship between the nation’s police unions and the district and county attorneys who are elected to hold the union’s membership accountable. In the new light of the high-profile death of Floyd — and so many unarmed minority women and men at the hands of police officers — records like Lacey’s 500-to-1 certainly raises an eyebrow.
In her case, we can juxtapose it against the millions of dollars sent to her campaign by law enforcement unions, and the $1 million dollars the LAPD union contributed to a PAC dedicated to defeating her most recent opponent (George Gascón, the one who has promised to toughen the standards for “necessary” use of force by police). You begin to wonder if there’s a conflict of interest. After all, if grassroots leaders worry that powerful politicians with close ties to gun and oil lobbies are somewhat compromised, is it not fair to wonder the same here?
At a January debate, Gascón said with regard to Lacey’s record on police force that she is a “district attorney that is comfortable looking away.”
“It’s simply not true,” Lacey replied, according to an article in Mother Jones. “People can talk trash, but what they will do when the pressure is on is different.”
To be clear, Lacey did not create this mess. Prosecutors must work closely with law enforcement in order to do their jobs effectively. It gets sticky when the job requires those prosecutors to investigate police officers, and downright seedy when prosecutors accept money from police unions, something that has occurred in cities and counties across the country for some time. As The Guardian notes: “Among the 95% of district attorneys who are elected, many … receive valuable donations and public endorsements from police unions for their campaigns.”
An important way for law enforcement to gain trust from the communities it serves is for legislators to put an end to this practice and the perceptions it raises.
Consider this: On March 18, 2018 Sacramento police shot dead Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, after pursuing him on foot to his grandmother’s backyard. They were responding to a 911 call about someone breaking into cars in the neighborhood. Clark had turned toward them in his grandmother’s yard with his arms outstretched, police said, and they believed the cellphone in one of his hand was a gun.
Protests ensued, in a scene very similar to what’s happening today. The Sacramento Bee reported that days after the shooting, two local police unions donated a combined $13,000 in campaign donations to Anne Marie Schubert, the district attorney up for reelection.
Ultimately the officers were not charged.
The unions and Schubert’s team said the timing had nothing to do with the case. Schubert, like Lacey, has been criticized for not holding police accountable for shootings. It was a line of attack by her 2018 opponent, Noah Phillips, who claimed she was too close to law enforcement to effectively do the job. In an interview leading up to the election, Schubert countered by saying, “We’ve prosecuted officers for raping women on duty. We’ve prosecuted officers for welfare fraud,” adding “We do our jobs. We’re going to follow the law, we’re going to follow the facts.” (Last fall the city of Sacramento agreed to pay $2.4 million to Stephon Clark’s two sons, 5 and 2 at the time of the settlement.)
In a vacuum, there’s nothing to see here. But we don’t live in a vacuum.
Former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar was the Hennepin County attorney, the chief prosecutor in Minneapolis, from 1999 to 2007. She has come under fire from some for not bringing charges against Derek Chauvin, one of six officers involved in a 2006 shooting of a man who stabbed multiple people.
Now Klobuchar, whose name has surfaced as a potential running mate for presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden, has called the suggestion that she had a role in declining to bring charges against Chauvin in 2006 as a “lie,” according to the New York Times. (Chauvin had also accumulated several complaints before Floyd’s death.)
However, what she can’t deny is her record. In the more than two dozen cases in which people were killed by police, she didn’t bring charges against any of them. She did, however, go hard after vandals and minors, which disproportionately affected minorities. And while the source of contributions made to her reelection campaign can no longer be found, she had a cozy relationship with — and public backing of — the police unions that endorsed her, according to a 2019 report from American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio.
In and of itself, this does not indicate any wrongdoing. But given that Minneapolis paid $4.8 million in legal settlements related to 122 police misconduct incidents, and law enforcement was involved in 29 deaths during her tenure, according to the APM/MPR report, why must we be expected to believe it means nothing?
Indeed, none of these examples point to clear corruption, but they certainly give the appearance of a conflict of interest. How can local and federal officials expect the minority community to trust the justice system when it looks as if the justice system is stacked against it?
Again, even if none of the district attorneys who receive large sums of money from police unions are corrupt in the least bit, only a fool would look at these numbers and not at least consider the possibility.
This incestuous relationship must end. People see millions of dollars exchanged between the police and the people who are supposed to hold the police accountable and they feel helpless.
We want the violence in the streets to end but we don’t want to return to normal. Normal is where injustice lies in wait. Normal is seeing police officers corroborate falsified reports and not be held accountable for doing so. So f- - - normal. What is required to move forward is a belief that the justice system is there to protect us, not use us as a bartering chip.
Even if it’s not true, and everyone elected to this office does so with integrity, it sure doesn’t look that way. It looks like we’re being sacrificed because the district attorney doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds it.