By david rogers
The Oregon District Attorneys’ Association (ODAA) recently had their summer conference, but not everyone was happy with the speakers.
The association flew in the chief prosecuting attorney from St. Louis County, Missouri, Bob McCulloch. McCulloch had just made news because he lost his re-election bid in what was the hottest race in the St. Louis local elections. McCulloch lost badly despite 28 years in office and a fundraising edge. The race was centered around the public’s dissatisfaction with a deep history of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
McCulloch was brought to Oregon to not only provide a presentation but to also serve as the keynote speaker during the conference dinner. Apparently, several conference participants refused to attend the dinner based on what was characterized by Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill as “offensive and unprofessional” remarks by McCulloch in an earlier presentation. And Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel characterized the presentation as racially insensitive, stereotyping Black men as criminals.
For people familiar with McCulloch’s track record, none of this is surprising.
McCulloch entered the national spotlight when he refused to prosecute the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, African American 18-year-old. The incident helped spur a national movement to address police misconduct and racism in the justice system. Several months after Brown’s killing, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a scathing report from their investigation of Ferguson, Missouri’s criminal justice system. The DOJ found rampant racial discrimination and police abuse unchecked by McCulloch, the county’s chief prosecutor, along with a range of practices that were entirely focused on revenue generation rather than justice.
McCulloch’s lack of interest in holding police accountable and addressing racial discrimination in the system was a core theme in the election campaign he just lost. In St. Louis County, African Americans are only 24% of the county population but 67% of the jail population. You can’t be the top prosecutor in a county for almost 30 years without holding a tremendous amount of responsibility for such terrible disparities. A city councilman from Ferguson, named Wesley Bell, crushed McCulloch on Election Day. Bell ran on a reform agenda that was about racial justice, police accountability, transparency, and focusing on treatment and diversion.
Given McCulloch’s history, what does his keynote invitation say about the Oregon District Attorneys Association? This is just one of the many questions we should be asking.
What did the ODAA hope to learn from disgraced District Attorney McCulloch? Do they see St. Louis County’s deeply discriminatory justice system as a model they want to replicate? How did the people at the conference feel when McCulloch showed a picture of young Black men and allegedly referred to them as “dirty bastards?” Did it make participants feel uncomfortable when McCulloch also allegedly referred to the ACLU and other activists as the “5th dimension of hell”? Why bring a guest speaker who has a long legacy of racially discriminatory policies and practices?
I am encouraged a little that at least two DAs have publicly expressed discomfort and disappointment with McCulloch’s language and ideas. But when only two out of Oregon’s 36 elected district attorneys are willing to publicly disavow McCulloch’s presence and behavior, it’s hard to have much confidence in the ODAA. The situation is only made worse when the association president, Matt Shirtcliff from Baker County, doesn’t understand why anyone was offended by McCulloch’s presence and ideas. Neither ignorance or intentional denial is acceptable for such a law enforcement “leader.”
The leadership of ODAA owe Oregonians an explanation.
The ACLU of Oregon often describes the District Attorneys Association in Oregon as our state’s biggest roadblock to criminal justice reform, particularly when trying to address issues of racial disparity, youth justice, and police accountability. Although we are quick to point out that some district attorneys are supporting important reforms in their individual counties, their association has a long history of lobbying to oppose and water down legislative efforts to modernize our justice system and increase fairness.
The ACLU has taken a lot of heat and pushback from district attorneys in characterizing their collective lobbying efforts as regressive. This is just another defining moment that reinforces our beliefs that the ODAA doesn’t come close to sharing Oregonians’ values or vision for how to improve the state’s justice system.
Here is one thing Oregon DAs could take away from St. Louis. Missouri is known as the “Show Me State.” It is time Oregon’s district attorneys show us their values by speaking out and choosing new leadership. Or will they continue to let the hardliners who are comfortable with bigotry and outdated thinking represent them?
This appears to be a moment when Oregon’s district attorneys need a gut check.