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Opinion columnist Gavin Nelson discusses Douglas County district attorney candidates' stances on police reform.

Opinion

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson is up for reelection this year. While many of us have been protesting the abuse at the hands of the police, politicians and candidates facing elections are racing to take sides.

President Donald Trump, being who he is, is trying to shore up his base through aggressive crackdowns that have included gassing protesters for his infamous bible photo. Meanwhile, Joe Biden suggested police shoot for the leg as opposed to the chest — which actually sums up the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party quite well.

Now, despite all the gaslighting from politicians being dragged by the changing tides rather than a deep understanding and genuine concern regarding police brutality, progress is being made.

Earlier this month, after what I would now identify as at least partly successful protests in Kansas City, Missouri, Police Chief Rick Smith announced the department secured funding for body cameras thanks to donations from organizations such as the DeBruce Foundation.

But policing is far from the only area in which reform is required in order to make the American system more racially equitable. While Branson seeks reelection, both of his primary challengers criticized the amount of tangible success he’s had in his near 16 years in office — experience he’s touting as necessary for making substantive reforms.

When I spoke with Branson, he referenced multiple programs and initiatives meant to increase the awareness of racial biases in the District Attorney’s office. For example, the Douglas County District Attorney’s office will be implementing the use of the GARE (Government Alliance on Race and Equity) Toolkit, a system meant to introduce consideration of racial factors in each case to increase the efficacy of blind justice.

"There is a lot of talk about what we should be doing in the community, but when you get right down to it, we are [making progress] and we have been doing it," Branson said.

Suzanne Valdez, a University of Kansas professor of law and challenger to Branson in the DA race, said the problem is that many of these programs introduced to improve the integrity of the Douglas County justice system have been introduced in the last two years. Valdez sees Branson’s efforts as being too little, too late.

She referenced Branson’s establishment of a Drug Court in late 2019 as evidence of Branson being “asleep at the wheel.” 

Drug Courts began being established in the U.S. in the 1980s as a response to the war on drugs that was focused more on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. For the liberal oasis in the deep red wheatlands of Kansas, Valdez said Branson missed the opportunity to be a leader on the state and national levels when it comes to the treatment of drug use as a health crisis rather than a criminal one. 

“As a community we need to address systemic injustice together through collective community stakeholder engagement so that we come up with viable alternative solutions to incarceration and use of the criminal justice system,” Valdez said. 

And, to be fair to Branson, the programs that he has established in recent years do seem to be aimed at doing exactly what Valdez said is needed. At the same time, even Branson admits that these programs are too young to extract either meaningful statistics or evidence of the de-penitentiarization of the Douglas County justice system.

Timing seems to be against Branson. With the primary for the candidates scheduled for Aug. 4, voters may be skeptical of programs that have yet to show teeth.

Three candidates are running as Democrats. As of Tuesday, the winner of the primary will run unopposed in the general election on Nov. 3.

With what information he did have available to him, Branson said that since its inception in 2016, the pretrial release program has served 916 people and that there are currently 166 people in the program. 

Cooper Overstreet, a Lawrence defense attorney and the other of Branson’s two opponents, is also unimpressed with Branson’s work thus far. 

“We can’t sit here and talk about the work that we need to do as leaders in our criminal legal system but then just completely refuse to acknowledge the harm that we’ve caused in the past and try to rectify that,” Overstreet said.

Specifically, Overstreet’s comments were in reference to one of his proposals regarding the establishment of a conviction integrity unit that would function to enforce and maintain a higher confidence in the convictions made by the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, something he said could begin to ease the racial disparities in the justice system.

When I asked Branson if he also supported setting up a conviction integrity unit, he said that he had recently met with the members of the University of Kansas School of Law’s Innocence Project. Branson said they determined it would be an extraneous measure given the size of Douglas County’s jail population and Branson’s willingness to re-examine cases in light of new evidence.

Valdez said she is undecided on whether there is a necessity for a concrete program. But she added that there are cases she would like to take deeper looks at.

It is important to note that a quarter of the Douglas County’s Jail population is currently made up of Black people according to a manual search of the jail's public demographic information — a percentage that in no way reflects Douglas County’s less than 5% Black share of the population. 

It will ultimately be up to the voters to decide whether or not Branson has done enough to justify his re-election, that he’s not simply another official being carried by the winds of the political climate at the time. One thing we can be certain of, though, is that the protests have served to bring additional attention to the racial disparities in the justice system and that each of these candidates recognizes there is a problem.

Gavin Nelson is a junior from Olathe studying journalism and English.