Campaign to Recall Oakland Reform District Attorney Gets Rolling

The incipient campaign to unseat a reformist district attorney in California just became official: A new political committee was launched to recall Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, according to public registrations. The recall committee launched just seven months after Price, whose jurisdiction includes Oakland and other East Bay communities, took office.

Price is one of more than a dozen reform-minded prosecutors who have faced recalls or attempts to restrict their discretion in recent years — part of a backlash to criminal punishment reforms and fearmongering over crime by police and their political allies.

“They were threatening to recall her when she was running for the seat,” said Cat Brooks, co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Police Terror Project, which endorsed Price last year. “Unfortunately in the Bay Area and in other places in the country, this is the new political tactic,” she said. Brooks added that the campaigns follow a pattern: first, character assassination and right-wing attacks, and then a recall.

Price’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The committee registration lists the phone number for Reed & Davidson LLP, a law office based in Los Angeles that serves as a treasurer for political committees. The law office did not respond to a request for comment.

Price, a civil rights attorney, was elected in 2022 on a reform platform that focused on rehabilitation and addressing police misconduct and corruption within the office. She promised to end use of the death penalty, stop charging kids under 18 as adults, establish a conviction integrity unit, and expand services for victims of gun violence.

In a story that has become familiar to prosecutors across the country who campaigned on reforming the criminal justice system, Price’s opponents began to attack her proposed policies before she took office in January. An online petition for her recall started circulating in February.

The Oakland Police Officers’ Association has blamed her office for worsening crime. And her handling of two high-profile cases of children killed fueled intense internal and public criticism.

Two prosecutors resigned from Price’s office in recent months after she decided not to lengthen sentences for defendants in two cases where children were shot and killed, one by a stray bullet. At least two dozen other prosecutors and investigators have left the office since Price was elected. Several of the departed staffers went to work for San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins — who is widely seen as being close to police and was herself appointed last year after campaigning to successfully recall a reformist prosecutor.

Price’s critics point to the departures as evidence of her failures, but turnover is typical when a new prosecutor takes office. Brooks said, “The hype-up that this is because Pamela is somehow so problematic and that’s why there’s turnover is absolutely ludicrous.”

California has seen several recall campaigns in recent years after reform prosecutors won office from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled, and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón survived a second recall attempt. The attacks on reform-minded prosecutors play up individual cases to highlight what critics say is incompetence in the offices of prosecutors like Price, Boudin, and Gascón.

The visceral criticisms of Price have taken hold just seven months into her first term in office and made it difficult for observers to distinguish impartial criticism from backlash to the reform movement writ large. In the cases of both Price and Boudin, proponents of tough-on-crime policies have drawn a link between criminal justice reform and crimes against Asian Americans.

“All of this was happening under [Nancy] O’Malley,” Brooks said, referring to the previous Alameda County district attorney. Part of the backlash to the criminal justice reform movement is a law-and-order drum beat that capitalizes on and manipulates people’s fear and pain, Brooks said. “It’s a bunch of false flags,” she added. “Unfortunately, that is a tactic we know that the right uses to prevent solidarity.” 

Since the reform prosecutor movement took off in the mid-2010s, more than 30 bills in at least 17 states have tried to strip power from prosecutors whose policies address efforts to reform the criminal justice system. State lawmakers, often in rural areas, have sought to limit the power of prosecutors elected on reform platforms in far-away cities.

The lines betweensubstantive criticism of elected prosecutors and efforts to undermine their authority have become blurred.

While prosecutors across the political spectrum should be accountable to their constituents, criticism of prosecutors like Price and her peers has been amplified within a larger project to oppose popular criminal justice reform, said Anne Irwin, founder and director of the pro-reform group Smart Justice. “The nascent recall effort in Alameda County is absolutely reflective of a national Republican playbook,” Irwin said.

“The nascent recall effort in Alameda County is absolutely reflective of a national Republican playbook.”

There are parallels to St. Louis, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, where lawmakers impeached Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner last year, she added. Ideological differences typically drive resignations under tough-on-crime and reform prosecutors alike, but the media did not cover staff departures or internal office drama until reform-minded candidates started winning office.

“What’s remarkable is that there has been almost no coverage of how an elected prosecutor runs their office until progressive prosecutors were elected,” Irwin said. “Then all of a sudden, there is intense scrutiny, much of it drummed up by the folks who are backing a recall, to make a case that the progressive prosecutor is a bad manager. But can any of us look back in history and point out whether or not any other tough-on-crime prosecutors in the ’80s or ’90s were good managers?”

Voters in Alameda County watched Boudin’s recall play out. More than a year later, they saw that the recall didn’t make San Francisco a cleaner or safer place, Irwin said. Unlike San Francisco, Alameda County has less money and more people directly impacted by mass incarceration. Those factors could make a recall effort in Alameda County more of an uphill battle.

“The entire Bay Area, including Alameda County, is realizing that the recall of Chesa Boudin was a false promise,” she said. “That will impact how Alameda County voters approach a recall effort against DA Price. There will be a lot more skepticism about a recall of the district attorney being the panacea.” 

Price’s 2022 election was in part response to a push among Oakland residents for reforms to the criminal justice system they said were long overdue. Price beat a more moderate candidate and became the first Black prosecutor with support among communities most impacted by crime. She declined corporate PAC money and raised more than $1 million for her campaign.

Price’s predecessor and 2018 opponent, Nancy O’Malley, had beenaccused of misconduct and workedagainst some criminal justice reform efforts. Police unions heavily backed O’Malley’s 2018 reelection campaign against Price. She retired in 2021.

As Price implemented the reforms she ran on, pushback was swift. One prosecutor resigned over Price’s reluctance to enhance sentencing in the stray bullet case and said Price’s office had mistreated victims in Asian American Pacific Islander communities. Another said she had neglected victims of violent crime.

Families of victims have also issued criticisms of Price, saying her office hasn’t implemented strict-enough sentences. Outlets including the New York Post and the Berkeley Scanner, a conservative independent outlet, have amplified criticism of Price’s office and publicized resignation letters from prosecutors who left her office.

The resignations fueled more public criticism that linked Price’s policies to crime in Oakland, which reached 100 homicides for the first time in a decade in the years before she was elected. Within her first six months in office, conservative media began to attack Price’s approach to reform. A recent headline in the national conservative outlet Washington Examiner blared: “Soros-backed prosecutor continues to go easy on murderers.”

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