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Police, progressive prosecutors battle over reform

SAN FRANCISCO – In early December, police officers here pulled over their squad car to talk to a homeless man about a burglary report. He immediately attacked them with a vodka bottle.

After Jamaica Hampton, 24, drew blood with his blows and refused orders to get on the ground, officers shot him three times, wounding him in the leg. Hampton was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and his left leg was amputated in surgery.

Police officers demanded swift prosecution. But the city’s new reform-minded district attorney begged off, saying he would not immediately press charges against Hampton because the officers involved in the shooting were also under investigation. Union officials objected and called for federal intervention.

The fury that has erupted over the Hampton attack reflects a growing trend across the nation of recently elected progressive prosecutors drawing the ire of local police departments as well as some top federal officials. 

These DAs say they want to work to remake the criminal justice system from the inside and that sending people to jail for all manner of infractions will only further stress an overburdened prison system and doom lives. Police unions, however, caution that such soft-on-crime tactics will sow chaos and endanger law enforcement. 

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, center, gestures during his swearing-in ceremony in San Francisco on Jan. 8. Boudin is part of a growing wave of progressive prosecutors who want to change the criminal justice system from within.

The friction between the two sides could lead to legal paralysis, criminal justice experts say.

“It’s not ideal to aggravate that relationship” between the DA’s office and police, says Lucy Lang, executive director of John Jay College’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, which promotes dialog between the nation’s 2,300 elected prosecutors, police and community members.

“While prosecutors should be independent of police, there’s no question they have to work together every day,” Lang says. “Emotions do run high, though.”

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