Meet the Other Two Northern California DAs Facing Law Enforcement Blowback

The Contra Costa and San Joaquin prosecutors seek re-election on Tuesday after they helped form a reform alliance and charged law enforcement officers.

Piper French   |    June 3, 2022

Diana Becton, the district attorney of Contra Costa County, California (Becton/Facebook)

Diana Becton is a Democratic district attorney in a liberal Northern California county. Fifty miles inland, Tori Verber Salazar is a Republican DA in a more competitive area. But the two have become inextricably linked, joining hands in 2020 to form an alliance in support of criminal justice reform, breaking with the established order for California DAs. 

Their Prosecutors Alliance emerged as an alternative voice to the California District Attorneys’ Association (CDAA), the organization that lobbies on behalf of nearly all California prosecutors and typically champions more punitive legislation. Efforts to strengthen accountability for police and prosecutors are a flash point of disagreement. The CDAA has fought bills to curtail racial discrimination by prosecutors in jury selection and to make it easier to prosecute police for misconduct. The Prosecutors Alliance, meanwhile, has called for a ban on law enforcement contributions to DAs, citing the undue influence such donations can portend, and supported legislative efforts for increased data transparency amongst DA offices.

These fault lines are now bleeding into Tuesday’s local elections. During their time leading the Contra Costa and San Joaquin DA offices, Becton and Verber Salazar have prosecuted law enforcement officers for violent or abusive behavior toward civilians, earning their unions’ opposition. Now, both face challenges from opponents who are backed by law enforcement.

Becton faces Mary Knox, a prosecutor in her office. Verber Salazar’s opponent Ron Freitas is a former San Joaquin prosecutor who sat on the CDAA’s board until recently. and who faces a jury discrimination scandal of his own. The Stockton NAACP recently unearthed a case from 2009 where a federal judge ruled that Freitas had illegally struck a Black juror from a case involving two Black defendants. “If Ron Freitas is elected it will cast a shadow over every prosecution involving a person of color,” the NAACP wrote in a press release.

Knox and Freitas are highly critical of the incumbents’ attempts to change prosecutorial practices within their county, alleging that these reforms have eroded public safety. The elections also involve plenty of personal animus: Knox and Freitas sued Becton and Verber Salazar, respectively, after being demoted while serving as high-ranking officials in their offices.

The only other DAs on the Prosecutors Alliance’s advisory committee, San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles’s George Gascón, have attracted far more national attention. And they have drawn similar animosity from local law enforcement, including from the ranks of their own offices. This has helped fuel a broader backlash from centrist and conservative forces, which are capitalizing on perceptions that the DAs’ policies have contributed to rising crime, though crime has also hiked in California counties governed by tough-on-crime DAs. Boudin is set to face voters as well next week in a recall election that is heavily funded by real estate and venture capital money.  

But Becton and Salazar’s re-election bids are equally symptomatic of the ongoing tussle over DAs who break with the tough-on-crime status quo. Cristine Soto DeBerry, the executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance, believes these challenges are part of a broader effort to roll back criminal justice reforms. “That has been consistent in this state as we’ve passed statewide ballot measures, as candidates have been elected—police unions and conservatives have been looking for ways to unwind those reforms,” she told Bolts

Neither Freitas nor Knox responded to requests for comment from Bolts.

In 2018, Becton, a former judge, became the first Black person and first woman to serve as DA in Contra Costa, a largely suburban commuter zone for the Bay Area that includes poor cities like Richmond as well as more affluent areas like Walnut Creek. In 2021, she filed charges against Deputy Andrew Hall for the fatal shooting of an unarmed Filipino man named Laudemer Arboleda. Hall was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison—making him the first law enforcement officer to be convicted of a felony for an on-duty shooting in Contra Costa history.

Hall’s killing of Arboleda occurred in 2018, the year Becton took office. Three years later, the same deputy shot and killed another person: an unhoused man with schizophrenia named Tyrell Wilson. John Burris, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Arboleda’s mother, has criticized the DA office’s delay in charging Hall, saying, “Wilson could be alive if Hall were prosecuted earlier.” In an interview, Becton defended her timeline, saying she had to completely overhaul the DA office’s mechanism for investigating officer uses of force. “These decisions were always made in a back room somewhere,” she said. “No reports, officers were cleared, nobody could tell you exactly how or why.” The DA’s office now has a protocol that every local law enforcement agency in the county has signed on to requiring the office to independently investigate every instance where an officer shoots someone. 

Livingston suggested Becton’s prosecution had been politically motivated, saying, “I also urge her to take down the posts on her reelection campaign social media where she touts this prosecution.” Livingston is also running for re-election on Tuesday, against a challenger who has criticized his handling of the issue.

The Contra Costa sheriff’s deputy union alone has heavily contributed to Knox’s campaign to oust Becton. Knox has also criticized her boss’s handling of the case against Hall, suggesting that the timing of the filing was political. But she has given contradictory answers about how she would have dealt with the case herself, including telling the Mercury News editorial board that she would not have prosecuted the deputy.

A similar dynamic is playing out in San Joaquin, which lies further east in the Central Valley. In 2021, Verber Salazar convened grand juries to investigate two cases of San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office jail guards accused of sexually assaulting incarcerated women; both guards were indicted. 

Verber Salazar, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this piece, has had an unconventional career: she touted her law enforcement donations when first seeking office in 2014, but has since spurned police money. She was the first DA in California to exit the CDAA in 2020, regretting the association’s opposition to the state’s landmark criminal justice reforms throughout the 2010s.

“The community can come together and reach out to our current DA,” Toni McNeil, an ordained elder and lead community organizer with the interfaith social justice group Faith in the Valley, told Bolts when asked about her group’s relationship with Verber Salazar. “Clergy can call that DA together in a meeting and say, Hey, we’re concerned that law enforcement beat Devin Carter, and we demand that these officers be held accountable for violating AB392, excessive use of force. And she shows up. She responds.” 

In the case of Carter, a Black seventeen-year-old who was brutally beaten by four Stockton police officers, Verber Salazar chose to empanel another grand jury, which ultimately charged two of the officers with felony assault. Though the Stockton police department fired the two officers who were ultimately charged, the local police union criticized the grand jury’s decision to indict.

Now, the San Joaquin County Deputy Sheriffs Association and Correctional Officers Association, and the Stockton Police Officers Association, which represented the three law enforcement officials that Verber Salazar has prosecuted for charges of beating or sexually assaulting civilians, are all supporting Freitas. The candidate has received campaign contributions from all three PACs, as well as other law enforcement associations around the state like Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC).

Both challengers have criticized the incumbents they’re hoping to unseat for being insufficiently tough on crime. And both say that even lower-level offenses need more stringent responses. 

Knox, for instance, criticizes Becton’s decision to forego prosecuting low-level misdemeanors in favor of diversion or other services, which the DA says she has enacted to try to stop people from “cycling through our system.” Knox also makes the case for confronting substance use with criminal punishment, indicating that she would reverse Becton’s policy of not charging people for possession of small amounts of controlled substances. “The most successful drug treatment comes when there are consequences…those consequences come from being on felony probation,” she said on a recent podcast. 

Freitas has similarly criticized Verber Salazar’s efforts to change prosecutorial practices in San Joaquin, telling a local paper that, if he is elected, he would “get out of the way of the assistant DAs and let them do what they were trained to do.” Freitas supports the repeal of Proposition 47, a 2014 initiative that reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors in an effort to reduce the prison population. Californians decisively re-affirmed Prop 47 in 2020 (the rollback effort lost overwhelmingly in San Joaquin County as well), but in the wake of highly publicized retail thefts, law enforcement and business interests have doubled down on repealing it this year. Legislative proposals to do so have not moved forward.  

“It is the old failed policies of the past that have not kept our communities safe, have led us to the highest rates of incarceration and very high rates of racial disparities in our system, versus continuing the path that we’re on,” Becton told Bolts

Similar debates are playing out through a reverse dynamic in many California counties, where outsiders running on decarceration and criminal justice reform are either challenging more conservative sitting DAs or running to succeed outgoing ones including in Alameda, Orange, Santa Clara, and Sacramento. The CDAA’s president, Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig, faces a challenge of his own from former public defender Cynthia Rodriguez.

The state’s elections on Tuesday could shake the established order of so-called progressive prosecutors in California, and there are a huge range of possible outcomes. If Boudin, Becton, and Salazar prevail, and progressive challengers win around the state, the alliance’s ranks could double. But when the dust settles, Gascón, the only DA who is not up for reelection next week, might also find himself in an alliance of one.

The backlash is real, Becton acknowledged. But she recalled how few progressive prosecutors there had been when she first became DA in 2017. “When you look around the country, we’re now about 20 percent of the elected prosecutors in the country [who] are standing on principles of reform and equity in the criminal justice system,” she told Bolts. “I still think that at the end of the day, the movement—and that’s really what it is—is continuing to grow.”