It might seem hard to imagine, what with Kamala Harris, progressive prosecutor, having been the district attorney of San Francisco from 2004 to until she was elected California Attorney General in 2010, but San Francisco never prosecuted a cop for killing. It could be that the cops were so good that they never had a bad shoot, or it could have something to do with Harris’ understanding of what it is to be a progressive prosecutor. Ahem.
The other day, Judge Kopf raised the question of what it means to be a progressive prosecutor. People run for office under that claim, usually wrapped up in fuzzy vagaries about their being decarceral or choosing to not prosecute categories of crime, from pot to theft, that are out of favor. Curiously, while they campaign on the promise to lock up fewer people in general, the calculus reverses when it comes to at least one class of defendant: police officers.
Chesa Boudin, scion of a family with a passing familiarity with killing, was elected as a progressive prosecutor. Surely, he was strong on the progressive side, but as Judge Kopf generally wondered of the type, was there any particular interest in the “prosecutor” part of the phrase? While it’s one thing to want to be a more fair, less carceral prosecutor, the job still involved prosecuting. Would he do it?
The killing occurred on Dec. 1, 2017, after Mr. Samayoa and Edric Talusan, a field training officer, responded to an alleged carjacking by Mr. O’Neil, according to the district attorney’s office.
Mr. O’Neil, who was Black, was suspected of having stolen a California State Lottery minivan. Mr. Samayoa and Officer Talusan chased him for a few blocks in the Bayview District when the van reached a dead-end street, at which point Mr. O’Neil jumped out and began to run, Mr. Boudin said in the news release.
Other patrol cars closed in and blocked Mr. O’Neil’s path, at which point he ran past the police car where Mr. Samayoa was seated in the passenger seat. The rookie officer shot Mr. O’Neil as he was running by, killing him, according to the release.
Almost three years from the day Samayoa, the rookiest of rookies, pulled out his weapon, shot and killed an unarmed fleeing O’Neil, Boudin has charged him with voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, together with some lessers.
While O’Neil’s attempt to flee from the police tends to have a knee-jerk reaction in the legal ignoramuses who claim law and order for themselves, there was nothing to suggest that he posed an imminent threat of serious harm to anyone. It’s not that flight is a good thing, but it’s not a capital crime either.
Callousness aside, there is no justification for shooting an unarmed, unthreatening person just for fleeing. It happens with some regularity, whether by gun or lesser-lethal weapon, particularly in the hands of cops with a girth of substance because police tend to really hate it when a perp makes them run. To their credit, none of the other officers on the scene, all of whom had vastly more experience than this kid with four days on the job, used their weapon.
But why manslaughter? Why not murder?
In response to why he did not charge Mr. Samayoa with second-degree murder, Mr. Boudin said in the interview that he was committed to ending “the widely criticized practice of district attorneys across the country of overcharging cases.” He added that “that commitment applies equally to police officer defendants as it does to anyone else.”
There’s a visceral sense to the blood-thirsty woke that a murder charge against a cop feels more “justice-y.” It’s led a number of progressive prosecutors, or just prosecutors who didn’t want rocks to sail through the windows of their home, to charge murder in very high profile killings. Murders they can’t prove. Murders when the facts fall short of the elements of the crime, and can only be met in the fevered imaginations of imputed malevolence and racism.
On the one hand, these upcharges are likely to not only get dismissed, but end up in a cop being acquitted. On the other hand, failure to charge murder when the bloodthirsty mob demands it could prove disastrous to a prosecutor, who can flip from progressive to evil if they don’t do as the mob demands. It takes some guts to resist the impulse to feed the mob’s hunger for revenge.
How Chesa Boudin is doing as prosecutor is best known by those in the trenches of San Francisco. Is he doing his job, protecting the people who reposed their trust in him to perform the function of prosecutor? Beats me. Others will know better.
But as far as this prosecution goes, it appears that Boudin is doing what a good prosecutor should, not letting a needless killing of a human being get swept behind the badge, and at the same time honoring his principle not to overcharge a defendant, even when the defendant is a cop.
Of course, Boudin comes to the job with a sort of street cred that few prosecutors will ever be able to claim, which may serve to insulate his decisions from unduly harsh scrutiny of the visceral woke. Even so, no one would have questioned his dedication to being less carceral, less harsh, if he had overcharged Samayoa in this case. He was a cop, and there is no such thing as being too harsh to a cop. Yet, Chesa Boudin didn’t succumb to the impulse to overcharge and conducted his indictment honorably. If this is what a progressive prosecutor looks like, it’s pretty good.