State sends attorneys to help DA Pamela Price fight crime

Several people familiar with the Alameda County DA's office said they saw the move as a vote of no confidence in the leadership of DA Pamela Price.

State sends attorneys to help DA Pamela Price fight crime
Alameda County DA Pamela Price at an event in 2023. Emilie Raguso/The Berkeley Scanner

State officials are sending attorneys to Alameda County to help DA Pamela Price prosecute "serious and complex crimes" in Oakland and the East Bay, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Thursday.

The "new partnership" with DA Price will "increase the capacity to prosecute suspects involved in violent crimes, serious drug-related crimes, and property crimes — including retail theft and auto burglary," according to Thursday's announcement from the governor's office.

The prosecutors will come from the state Department of Justice and the state National Guard, Newsom announced.

Several people familiar with the Alameda County DA's office — current and former employees as well as defense attorneys — said they saw the move Thursday as a vote of no confidence in the leadership of DA Pamela Price. One person described it as "embarrassing" for the office.

Everyone declined to be named out of fear of possible retaliation or retribution.

One person familiar with the situation said the announcement reflected the limitations of the office as it now stands, noting that at least 34 trial attorneys, managers and charging attorneys had left since the 2022 election "at least in part" because of Price.

The people who have replaced them have significantly less experience with charging cases, trying cases and negotiating deals.

"That's the reason Newsom has to send in the AG’s office to do the job her people cannot begin to do," that person said.

"She is literally incapable of prosecuting crime," another person said. "This is the fallout."

Word also came out of the DA's office this week that Price had moved Jimmie Wilson, one of the most experienced prosecutors in the office, from the head of the felony trial team to a different role, leaving the position vacant for now.

Another person said they saw Thursday's announcement as a sign that the state had become "very concerned about street crime in Oakland and how it’s playing in national news and politics."

Yet another person noted that, despite Price's frequent claims that the office had already been "in crisis" under the former elected district attorney, "I don’t remember the governor ever sending troops to help her predecessor."

One veteran prosecutor said it was interesting that the governor's statement had focused on the need for appropriate prosecution rather than simply helping Alameda County with the current crisis.

"Price’s refusal to adequately prosecute crime in Oakland has brought us to this reality," he said. "The governor of California and the attorney general are now forced to intervene — at least until the voters have the opportunity to officially do so."

One DA's office insider said the office had found out about Thursday's news the "same way everyone else did," noting that there had been no internal announcement in advance about what was coming.

Not everyone said the announcement reflected poorly on Price, however.

Ryan Khojasteh — a former public defender who became a prosecutor under Chesa Boudin and was later hired by Price in the Alameda County DA's office, where he still works — told KTVU on Thursday that he did not see the plan as a "rebuke."

"Partnership is a great thing," said Khojasteh, who is running against Brooke Jenkins (who fired him) for SF DA. "We'll be able to dedicate more power and money. We're all on the same team here. We should be open to help and collaboration."

"A band-aid to fix a broken arm"

Meanwhile, Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods issued a statement Thursday afternoon decrying the plan altogether.

Woods said it would "fuel mass incarceration and the further devastation of Black and Brown communities."

"They’re trying to use a band-aid to fix a broken arm," he said. "More prosecution and more police is not the solution here. We need housing, money for community-based organizations, higher wages, employment, as well as money for our schools, medical care and mental health."

In the statement, Woods also said he was not aware of any shortage of local prosecutors.

He noted that the state had not granted any extra resources to the public defender's office — despite the fact that its annual budget is much lower than the DA's office budget.

The PD's office gets about $54 million annually, while the DA's office gets $96 million, according to his statement.

Initiative is modeled on a San Francisco program

The additional resources, a partnership between the governor’s office, the state Department of Justice (CADOJ), the state National Guard (CalGuard), the CHP and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, will boost the local capacity to investigate and analyze "violent, property, and serious drug-related crimes" in addition to prosecuting them.

The CADOJ is "expected to prosecute significant cases targeting major criminal networks in Oakland and the East Bay," officials announced.

Meanwhile, CalGuard prosecutors will be deputized as assistant district attorneys, providing "investigative and analytical support to identify criminal networks."

The partnership, modeled on a San Francisco program that was created last year, is expected to be up and running "in the coming days," the governor's office said.

"An arrest isn’t enough," Newsom said in Thursday's statement. "Justice demands that suspects are appropriately prosecuted. Whether it’s 'bipping' or carjacking, attempted murder or fentanyl trafficking, individuals must be held accountable for their crimes using the full and appropriate weight of the law."

Bonta and Price both said they welcomed the infusion of law enforcement resources.

"I welcome the support from the Governor in this fight against organized retail crime and the scourge of Fentanyl in our community," Price said in Thursday's statement from the governor's office.

Price also said she would assign career prosecutor ADA Michael Nieto to head the collaboration for her office.

In Thursday's announcement, Newsom's office said the attorneys will build on the "surge operation" the governor announced Tuesday to send 120 California Highway Patrol officers to Oakland "and the surrounding area" to help crack down on crime.

This week's announcements come amid growing concern about Oakland's rising crime, with preliminary data showing a 21% rise in violent crime in the city last year. That includes a 38% increase in robberies.

Property crime too rose in Oakland last year, with vehicle theft increasing 45%.

The governor's office said Oakland crime was "uniquely rising compared to other urban centers in California" — but Berkeley statistics showed similar trends in 2023, according to preliminary BPD data.

Robberies in Berkeley were up 27% in 2023 and vehicle theft saw a 58% increase.

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According to the governor's office, other places in the state have seen "the opposite trend."

"Crime, including homicides, violent crime, and property crime is down in many jurisdictions," according to Thursday's announcement. "Violent crime and homicides are significantly down in Los Angeles, and early data from San Francisco indicate overall crime in 2023 was at its lowest point in the last ten years — other than the year 2020 when daily life and routines were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."

Berkeley officials react to plans for CHP "surge operation"

On Thursday, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he was grateful to the state "for providing an unprecedented investment to fight crime in the East Bay."

He said it was clear that more resources are needed in both enforcement and prosecution to address serious crime in a meaningful way.

"This adds additional capacity to not just arrest people but to hold people accountable," he said. "I think it just shows the power in collaboration and what the state can provide to address the public safety challenges in the East Bay."

"I think it's going to make a big difference," he added.

Arreguín said was not aware of any state resources that are now coming to Berkeley but he said he would be following up with the Berkeley police chief to see what could be possible.

North Berkeley Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said she too welcomed the state support, adding only that she expects that "the CHP will work closely with Berkeley’s police department and will respect our City’s rules, regulations, and values around fair and impartial policing."

West Berkeley Councilman Terry Taplin commended Newsom and Bonta "for taking bold action to address the public safety crisis in our county."

He said he also thought the current situation highlighted a disconnect between the most pressing community needs and "some of the recent policy agendas that have been rammed through." (He did not elaborate.)

"As appreciative as I am for their intervention, it sharply illuminates our region’s shortcomings with respect to maintaining basic public safety," Taplin added.

Looking forward, Taplin said he hoped "new regional leadership" would prioritize public safety and infrastructure needs "above ideology."

Other Berkeley officials also weighed in Thursday.

Like Hahn, Elmwood Councilman Mark Humbert said he too expected the CHP to "respect our local law enforcement policies, especially ones relating to de-escalation and fair and impartial policing."

He noted that many law enforcement agencies, including Berkeley's, are "severely short-staffed" and said he was thankful for any additional resources in the area.

"One way or another, we need more officers to address the surge in both property and violent crime that we are seeing and to send a clear message that this is not a new normal and will not be tolerated," Humbert said.

Meanwhile, South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett said he was optimistic about the added resources and how they will help Oakland "address its out-of-control crime situation."

He said longer-term local solutions are also needed.

"We can’t expect the state to be here forever," Bartlett said. "We have to resolve to create homegrown solutions that sustainably create safety for every neighborhood in Alameda County."

Note: This Scanner added statements from Mark Humbert, Ryan Khojasteh and Brendon Woods to this story after publication.

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