Correction: This post and headline originally stated that Rachael Rollins was the first black district attorney in Suffolk County, Mass., which includes Boston. The first was actually Ralph C. Martin, Jr., a Republican appointed by Gov. William Weld in 1992. Rollins is the first black female district attorney in Boston. The post has been updated.
This month, I wrote about how career prosecutors in St. Louis County, Mo., responded to the election of a reform-oriented district attorney (who also happens to be the county’s first black district attorney) by voting to join the police union. Given that this particular police union not only opposed the new prosecutor and his policies, but is also one of the most aggressive and outspoken police unions in the country, the move was a pretty clear message.
In Boston, Rachael Rollins also made history in November’s election, becoming the first black woman to be district attorney in that city’s history. And she, too, is now meeting with some resistance. A group called the National Police Association (NPA) has filed an ethics complaint against Rollins — before she has even taken office. As Carissa Byrne Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law explained on Twitter, the complaint is utter nonsense. It’s based not on any actual ethical violations, but on Rollins' campaign promise to not prosecute 15 low-level nonviolent offenses, ranging from public trespassing to drug possession.
As Hessick points out, the complaint seems to be a PR move for the NPA. Judging by its website, the NPA appears to be just a few months old and has, thus far, has also called for investigations of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (for consulting with the ACLU); called for another investigation of the auditor of the San Jose police department (for, among other things, listening to protesters at an anti-police rally); and called for a boycott of Nike for signing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as an endorser.
The complaint against Rollins is vacuous for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most pertinent is that Rollins can’t have committed a violation as district attorney . . . because she isn’t yet the district attorney. And if she does indeed follow through on her campaign pledge, it’s certainly fine to raise policy objections. But if prosecutors could be brought up on ethics charges for failing to prosecute certain crimes, nearly every district attorney in the country would be fighting complaints around the clock. It’s pretty simple: No district attorney’s office has the resources to prosecute every crime, or even every class of crimes. So they have to prioritize. They must decide to pursue some cases at the expense of others. This is how district attorneys make policy.
The only truly unusual thing about Rollins' stated priorities is that she has been so transparent about what they are. She announced her plan before the election, which gave voters the opportunity to either embrace or reject it. They embraced it. That seems like the sort of thing we should want in a public servant.
So why would a group such as the NPA be so opposed to Rollins' proposal? Well, for starters, if police officers stop arresting people for low-level offenses, there would be less for police officers to do, which could well result in fewer police officers. In some jurisdictions, officers are evaluated based on how many stops and arrests they make, mostly because those are easier things to measure than how effective they are at preventing crime. (Not to mention, it’s not at all clear that low-level arrests do prevent crime.) Interestingly, the most compelling response to Rollins' proposal is one that also cuts against transparency: The argument that by announcing her plan, Rollins' has removed the threat of prosecution as a deterrent to committing these crimes. In other words, it’s fine to make enforcing these laws a low priority, but just don’t make a big deal about it. Of course, that also robs the public of the chance to state its preference at the ballot box.
But again, these are policy arguments. Rollins isn’t committing an ethical violation by making her priorities public. The complaint is all the more absurd when you consider all the egregious ethical violations by prosecutors that never bring complaints. This is just harassment. It’s an attempt to thwart the agenda of a reform-minded district attorney, one who was clear about what she wanted to do, and one whom voters then overwhelmingly elected.
Reform prosecutors such as Rollins, Wesley Bell in St. Louis and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia are a threat to the punitive, retributive criminal-justice model that has dominated the United States since the 1980s. They’re a threat to every person, interest group, contractor and elected official with a stake in that model. It seems safe to say that the old model’s stakeholders aren’t going to give it all up without a fight.