SAN FRANCISCO — In early December, police officers here pulled over their squad car to talk to a homeless man about a burglary report. He immediately attacked them with a vodka bottle.
After Jamaica Hampton, 24, drew blood with his blows and refused orders to get on the ground, officers shot him three times, wounding his leg. Hampton was later charged with assault with a deadly weapon and his left leg was amputated in surgery.
Police officers demanded swift prosecution. But the city’s new reform-minded district attorney begged off, saying he would not immediately press charges against Hampton because the officers involved in the shooting were also under investigation. Union officials objected and called for federal intervention.
The fury that has erupted over the Hampton attack reflects a growing trend across the nation of recently elected progressive prosecutors drawing the ire of local police departments as well as some top federal officials.
These DAs say they want to work to remake the criminal justice system from the inside and that sending people to jail for all manner of infractions will only further stress an overburdened prison system and doom lives. Police unions, however, caution that such soft-on-crime tactics will sow chaos and endanger law enforcement.
The friction between the two sides could lead to legal paralysis, criminal justice experts say.
“It’s not ideal to aggravate that relationship,” between the DA’s office and police, says Lucy Lang, executive director of John Jay College’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, which promotes dialog between the nation’s 2,300 elected prosecutors, police and community members.
“While prosecutors should be independent of police, there’s no question they have to work together every day,” says Lang. “Emotions do run high, though.”
That’s what’s happening in San Francisco, where Chesa Boudin, 39, the son of anti-war radicals who were sent to jail for murder after a 1981 bank robbery went bad, was sworn in as district attorney in January.
Boudin ran on the promise to address racial bias in the criminal justice system, reform a cash bail rule that discriminates against the poor and hold police accountable in misconduct cases. Local police groups spent $650,000 for ads and mailers during the election that lambasted Boudin as a “dangerous choice” for the city.
A few weeks ago, in one of his first major acts on the job, Boudin held off on prosecuting Hampton for his attack. The decision drew a furious reply from police advocates who in a letter asked U.S. Attorney General William Barr to look into the matter.
“San Francisco’s newly elected district attorney literally has a criminals-first agenda,” wrote Paul Kelly, president of the United Coalition of Public Safety, a consortium of 13 Western law enforcement associations. “Boudin’s decision not to charge Jamaica Hampton has put law enforcement lives in danger.”
Progressive wins from San Francisco to Philly
Boudin tells USA TODAY that the letter from the United Coalition of Public Safety to Barr ignores the fact that he needs the officers in question to be part of the prosecutorial process against Hampton, and they wouldn’t be available until the internal investigation is over.
“Because of my desire to protect the investigation, the only prudent thing to do was wait,” says Boudin. “I want to avoid a dismissal, so delaying was essential to not tainting the integrity of the investigation into the shooting.”
Boudin says he supports “swift consequences” for those who attack police officers but also adds that he sees himself as “part of a group of progressive prosecutors who want to keep our communities safe without just relying on incarceration.”
Kelly counters that there’s “no reason to slow down the process even if there’s an investigation of an officer-involved shooting,” and failing to move forward quickly in cases where police are attacked leaves officers feeling “hopeless.”
“When individuals are arrested but then let out, our communities get victimized,” says Kelly. “People will continue to get killed, raped and molested, and eventually there will be the realization that we made a mistake, we shouldn’t have brought this DA in.”
The Hampton case has put a spotlight on the growing national debate over criminal justice reform, one that has 2020 presidential candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden rethinking his support of capital punishment and Sen. Elizabeth Warren pushing to ban private prisons.
Even President Donald Trump, who has made it clear he stands with police on a range of criminal justice matters, in 2018 signed the First Step Act,a bipartisan measure aimed at reducing jail time and lowering incarceration rates.
The United States has the world’s largest inmate population, with roughly 2.2 million Americans behind bars. Nearly 38% of inmates are disproportionately African American, while black people represent less than 13% of the overall U.S. population.
Over the past few years, a few dozen district attorneys and prosecutors with progressive agendas have been voted into office around the nation. These include DAs such as Wesley Bell in Missouri’s St. Louis County, Shameca Collins in Natchez, Mississippi, and John Creuzot in Dallas.
Three other progressive DAs spoke with USA TODAY about their experiences pushing reform-oriented policies, including Philadelphia’s outspoken Larry Krasner.
“This country has been operating too long on a policy of jail and retribution,” says Kramer, whose most recent move was to refuse prosecution of those caught with Buprenorphine-based medications commonly used to treat opioid use. “We need drug treatment, mental health treatment. The other policies don’t work.”
Kramer says while he and other progressive prosecutors are often under attack by police unions and conservative politicians, he is confident “this is not a blip and increasingly the country will go this way. We’re in a cultural moment.”
Boston-based Suffolk County (Massachusetts) District Attorney Rachael Rollins, the first woman of color to hold a DA post in the state, admits that pushing a reformist agenda “is an uphill slog, but we are deeply committed.”
Rollins, who calls herself “smart on crime,” says a hallmark of the progressive wave is relying “on numbers not anecdotes.” She is busy hiring “technologists and data experts so we can document all this and show how these policies are making a difference.”
George Soros-backed PACs boost DAs
Joe Gonzales, the recently installed Bexar County DA in San Antonio, Texas, says he’s already seen results from an approach that includes citing and releasing those stopped for minor drug infractions who are then steered to community service duty.
“In the last six months, around 1,400 people who would have been arrested before have been directed to other facilities, which means we’ve saved the county about $1 million in booking costs,” says Gonzales. “I like to say that jails are for people we’re truly afraid of.”
Some of these progressive district attorney wins have come thanks to assistance from political action committees funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, a fact that has been repeatedly touted by opposing candidates.
Gonzales received nearly $1 million of in-kind donations from a Soros-backed PAC called Texas Justice & Public Safety, helping fund commercials and mailings that helped him first upset incumbent Democrat DA Nico LaHood and ultimately beat his Republican opponent, Tylden Shaeffer.
“I was called a Soros puppet, people said he was buying my election,” says Gonzales. “But I’ve never met him or had any of his people tell me what to do. It was assistance that was offered no strings attached, and I didn’t offer anything in return.”
Some political activists say the recent success of progressive prosecutors is simply the result of stepping up to the challenge.
“DAs used to just run unopposed, but now they’re being challenged, which is a victory unto itself,” says Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a nonprofit that focuses on African American civil rights issues.
The Color of Change PAC most recently came out in support of Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx’s re-election bid in Illinois and is pushing for progressive DA candidates Audia Jones in Houston and George Gascon, a former San Francisco DA, in Los Angeles.
“These people are running on platforms that are rooted in the demands of the community,” says Robinson. “And even when they’re not winning, they’re competitive.”
Trump, Barr attack reformers
Most progressives eschew the tough-on-crime stance promoted by Trump and Attorney General Barr. Instead, they want to reform a justice system that they say often defaults to imprisoning the poor and minorities in disproportionate numbers.
According to Fair and Just Prosecution, a national group that spearheads reformist efforts, targeted issues include reclassifying some drug offenses, keeping young adult offenders out of the jail, avoiding the criminalization of mental illness, moving away from the death penalty, and beefing up social programs that offer alternatives to prison.
“What’s exciting to see is the variety of places these prosecutors are being elected, from the coasts to the deep South, from urban areas to rural regions,” says Miriam Aroni Krinsky, founder of Fair and Just Protection and a former assistant U.S. attorney in California. “The loud pushback you’re hearing is just reflective of the impact this new wave of prosecutors is having.”
Some of that pushback has come from Trump himself. The president specifically has blasted Philadelphia DA Krasner, telling attendees at a Pennsylvania campaign rally in December that “you may have the worst district attorney, or whatever the hell…”
Barr has been more sweeping in his condemnation, telling a Fraternal Order of Police conference in New Orleans in August that cities with progressive prosecutors “are headed back to the days of revolving door justice. The results will be predictable. More crime, more victims.”
James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police in Washington, D.C., echoes those concerns. He condemns the “cherry-picking approach where prosecutors pick what laws are important to police,” and says ultimately police pay the price.
“Police officers sense their lives are in danger if they feel the prosecutor doesn’t have their back,” says Pasco. “You arrest people who are breaking the law, but sometimes they’re then not even held. That has a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of officers.”
Ultimately, Pasco says the result of progressive prosecutorial policies is “chaos and anarchy,” and he predicts the end result will be a pendulum swing back to tough-on-crime policies.
“History won’t treat nincompoops like the DA in San Francisco kindly over time,” he says.
DA to police: You’re ‘not above the law’
Boudin dismisses such alarmist talk and rejects the criticism that he or any of his fellow reformers are anti-police.
“I take any assault on law enforcement seriously and I’ll prosecute any crime of that nature in San Francisco,” he says. “The reality is in a case like this there are lots of complicated and competing requirements out of my office.”
Videos posted online that show the Hampton incident from the street as well as police body cameras reveal a chaotic scene. Hampton can be seen going after one officer with the bottle as the police cruiser door opens, and again as officers struggle to get him on the ground.
Moments later, multiple shots are fired as Hampton goes down clutching the leg that later had to be amputated. One of the officers clearly sustains multiple blows to the face with the bottle, and his bloody cheek is visible in the final frames.
While it is clear Hampton assaulted the officers, an internal police investigation will look into the appropriateness of the response. Once this process is over, Boudin says he can move forward with his case against the assailant.
The incident throws multiple issues into sharp relief, from the use of force by police to the surging army of homeless people living in many California cities that has drawn sharp criticism from Trump and the promise of billions in aid from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
For his part, Boudin says that being among the nation’s growing group of progressive DAs doesn’t give him license to blow up the existing judicial system.
Rather, he says, it simply means reform-minded prosecutors are determined to find ways to improve upon approaches that either haven’t proven effective or are in need of refinement, including the often volatile interface between peace officers and the communities they serve.
“We need to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people who are protected by them,” says Boudin. “That means, yes, prosecuting those who attack, but also telling officers they’re not above the law.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava