Oakland, California, area gets first Black district attorney in 169-year history

By Justin Phillips
San Francisco Chronicle

Pamela Price, the next district attorney of Alameda County, spent the early afternoon of Dec. 13 in a quiet Oakland conference room, fine-tuning a press release announcing her transition team. In between a flurry of keystrokes on her laptop, she joked that she was still “getting used to” the idea of being the top law enforcement official in a county that hadn’t elected a Black person to the job in its 169-year history.

If not for the full-throated campaign support she received from anti-violence and pro-reform organizations, Price, a longtime civil rights attorney, might not be the face of this historic political milestone.

“Those groups that supported me have given me a mandate: I was elected to disrupt the system and transform the system,” said Price, who will be sworn in Tuesday. “That isn’t lost on me.”

It also isn’t lost on Price that the realities of her new job will test her ability to keep her campaign promises. She already fended off an attempt by her predecessor, retiring District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, to take $20 million from her budget for O’Malley-started programs.

Price has pledged to abolish cash bail, resentence those serving life without parole, and create a racial justice task force inside the District Attorney’s Office to ensure every case decision and policy position from the office promotes racial equity. The goals echo the 10-point platform she campaigned on.

The volunteer transition team Price ended up announcing with her press release last month consists of more than two dozen civil rights and police accountability experts, nonprofit leaders, pastors and justice system reform activists. The team includes folks who have publicly backed Price, but are also prepared to criticize her if the situation calls for it.

One of these people is Rocky Hunt, the participatory defense coordinator of the Oakland nonprofit Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.

“Ending youth incarceration, dedicating resources to the healing and not grabbing at the low-hanging fruit when it comes to simply arresting people and feeding mass incarceration, those are the things that we want to see,” said Hunt, who also belongs to the District Attorney Accountability Table, a coalition of community organizations dedicated to police reform and justice system equity. “We know what was promised with District Attorney Price and now we want to see it backed by action.”

The D.A. Accountability Table is headed by Urban Peace Movement, an anti-violence group run by young people in Oakland. Many of them helped mobilize voters to support Price in her victory over the better-funded Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley.

“We know the solutions for public safety aren’t more funding to the police; it’s investing into schools, mental health resources, working collaboratively with the community to hear what they want from the D.A.’s office,” Cynthia Nuñez, the decarceration campaign coordinator for Urban Peace Movement, told me. “There’s an opportunity to end the criminalization of Black and brown people under District Attorney Price.”

Achieving that will require Price to build relationships with Alameda County’s 14 mayors and 19 law enforcement agencies, as well as the employees of her new office. Price will also have to win over the 47% of county voters who saw the more moderate Wiley as a better candidate. Wiley’s support came largely from the county’s suburbs and towns like Pleasanton and Livermore, and the wealthier enclaves of the Berkeley and Oakland hills.

The Bay Area has thus far been a mixed bag for progressive prosecutors. San Francisco voters recalled and replaced District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who came into office promising many of the same things as Price. Contra Costa County voters recently re-elected District Attorney Diana Becton, who has sometimes frustrated her progressive supporters, like when she declined to charge the former sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot Tyrell Wilson and is already in prison for an earlier fatal shooting.

Alameda is not San Francisco or Contra Costa, and Price is not Boudin or Becton. Price and her constituents will have to chart their own pursuit of common ground. And the local justice system has its own particular brand of ingrained inequities to confront.

Recent data from the the criminal justice reform nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice found that 50% of the Alameda County jail population is Black while only 10% of the overall resident population is Black. A report from the Urban Peace Movement and ACLU of Northern California revealed that 71% of misdemeanors prosecuted during 2017-18 were “low-level offenses” that the authors say would have been better addressed if assigned to pre-plea diversion programs.

These inequalities have persisted for decades due to the actions of a justice system that was not built with fairness in mind.

Change, good or bad, won’t come overnight, Price warned:

“It’s going to take time, but there will be a lot of people helping me make it happen.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Justin Phillips appears Sundays. Email: jphillips@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JustMrPhillips

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