District attorneys are the top law enforcement officials in each county. Even though the police and sheriffs are organized independently from the DA’s office, they work very closely to respond to alleged crimes. And the police can’t lock anybody into the criminal justice system without the help of a prosecutor. That means DAs can have a lot of influence on and oversight of the police.
Because district attorneys decide whether or not to charge someone, district attorneys have the ability to define what an appropriate arrest is and how police should behave. They also decide when an arrest leads to criminal charges.
When district attorneys pursue unfounded or inappropriate charges, they encourage the continuation of police misconduct and the abuse of police power. When district attorneys charge people who have been victims of police abuse, profiling or misconduct, prosecutors send a message to law enforcement that this kind of conduct is acceptable. But when district attorneys refuse to make pursue those charges, they send a clear message to police that their office will not stand behind abusive or discriminatory arrests.
The ability to charge also gives district attorneys the power to put a check on biases within the justice system based on race, gender, wealth, connections, appearance or other factors. For example, if district attorneys find that police are unfairly targeting a certain group of people, they can decline to charge and jail people whom the police have unfairly arrested. District attorneys can also deny that those biases exist or make disparities even worse by inserting their own bias.
District attorneys have the ability to ensure their office properly communicates to the police about what constitutes a crime, what kinds of crimes merit an arrest, how arrests ought to be done, and who ought to be arrested.
When someone complains about excessive use of force or police misconduct, the district attorney’s office decides whether to ignore that complaint or investigate it as a crime. The district attorney also decides whether charges are brought against an officer.
In the case of felony charges for things like officer involved shootings, the district attorney uses a grand jury to decide when to bring charges. The prosecutor alone has complete control on the grand jury’s ability to review the evidence by deciding what evidence the panel sees or doesn’t see.
District Attorneys shape policing priorities in a variety of ways. If they disagree with where police are focusing their efforts, how they are conducting themselves and whom they are arresting, DA’s can simply refuse to charge the people who are arrested. District Attorneys can also urge police to focus on solutions that are not just focused on arrests. Similarly, DA’s can also do more than simply processing cases that law enforcement brings them; they can use other approaches, besides just prosecution, to build safe and healthy communities.
How your district attorney addresses these issues is a question of leadership and values. They can help create solutions or advance real problems within the system.