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'Change Is Hard': Alameda District Attorney-Elect Pamela Price Talks About the Road Ahead

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A woman speaks into a microphone, standing in front of a banner that reads: 'Save People's Park.'
Pamela Price speaks during a rally hosted by the People's Park Council in Berkeley, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

For the first time in 80 years, an outsider — someone with no experience in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office — will assume the office’s top position.

When she is sworn in on Jan. 3, Pamela Price will become the county’s first Black district attorney, replacing Nancy O’Malley, who didn’t seek reelection. In November’s election, Price beat Terry Wiley, a senior member of O’Malley’s staff, by 27,000 votes.

In 2018, Price lost to O’Malley by 45,000 votes, an impressive showing against the two-time incumbent who was appointed in 2009. In 2022, Price ran on a progressive platform, promising to shift focus from incarceration toward forms of accountability grounded in eradicating racism from the criminal justice system and healing the relationship between law enforcement and the public.

Her staff will be responsible for prosecuting all criminal, juvenile and some civil cases in the county — around 20,000 cases a year. Earlier this week, Price sent out her first communication to the office’s staff: a holiday greeting and a request for honest feedback. Price’s election has caused quite the stir among the office’s 400-plus employees, who are now preparing for a major change, according to sources who spoke to KQED.

Price’s volunteer advisers for her transition into the new role include Yoel Haile, director of the ACLU Northern California’s criminal justice program; Lateefah Simon, a BART board director; Royl Roberts, interim general council for Peralta Community College District; and Jimmie Wilson, deputy district attorney in Alameda County, who competed in the primary election. Other local attorneys, community organizers and business leaders also are part of the 26-person advising team that was announced this week.

Price recently spoke with KQED about her historic election, recall campaigns against progressive prosecutors, and her priorities as she takes office.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Annelise Finney: Election Day was Nov. 8, but it took about two weeks to finalize the count in Alameda. What’s the last month been like for you?

Pamela Price: The last month has been about reaching out to people and people reaching out to me and responding to people that now, you know, want to support me that might not have supported me in the past. And preparing very quickly to be in a transition mode, to be able to understand the office as I’m walking into it and be able to plan ahead of time. So it's been really closing down my law practice, which I still have, creating a transition team, and closing up the campaign.

You will be the first Black DA in Alameda County. What does that distinction mean to you?

As a Black woman, I understand that I had to work harder than anybody else to get here. I understand that the voice that I bring is very, very different from the legacy of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. The lens through which I view prosecutorial discretion and prosecutorial misconduct is very different from that which has resided in that office throughout its history. A lot of folks respect the legacy of Earl Warren in that space, even if we don't respect everything he did. But he had a good reputation and appeared to have created an office that was very well respected, in that season. Since then, that office has had a very challenging relationship with the community that I represent. The elected district attorney is accountable to the people of Alameda County. And so I bring that perspective, which apparently has been lost over time.

I was looking at a map that overlaid reported crime rates with the election results and saw that people living in places with higher reported crime rates voted for you instead of Terry Wiley. Why do you think that was?

[In terms of] people who live in areas that have higher reported crime rates, the reason why it’s higher reported is because there's over-policing. Crimes occur all across Alameda County and in every community. The question is, how do they get reported? How do they get described? Typically, in Black and brown and poor communities, the kinds of crimes that happen there tend to be reported as more serious. I think that certainly for communities of color, we understand how the criminal justice system has had such a devastating impact on all of our lives — whether you’ve been a victim of crime or know someone who’s been a victim of crime or know someone that’s been incarcerated or prosecuted unfairly or prosecuted, period. The impact that district attorneys have had on communities of color has been quite pervasive and quite destructive. And so our communities typically are very much more aware of it.

It seems like what pushes a lot of the "tough on crime" narrative that we saw crop up in this election is a pervasive sense of fear. People are worried about gun violence. They’re worried about smash-and-grab robberies. They’re worried about drug use or people who are experiencing mental health challenges on the street. How do you hope to quell these fears that are very real for some people? 

A lot of the fear that gets used in DA’s races is race-based. Let’s face it. We heard it in the run-up to my election — there was a lot of race-baiting: "Oh, those dangerous people in Oakland who were responsible for all the crime." That’s a dog whistle for racism. When people are led to believe that they need to be afraid, I understand where that’s coming from. We have to look beyond the racism that’s embedded in the criminal justice system, that’s embedded in the narratives of fear. But I will speak to people where they are. Everybody wants to be safe and I understand that. Whether it’s in your home, whether it’s at the movies, whether it’s on the street, whether it’s at the gas station, wherever. My job as a district attorney is to assist the police in solving crime as necessary without racial profiling, without targeting people based on their race or their gender or their vulnerabilities. And so I think to the extent that folks are afraid of crime coming to their neighborhood, they need to take a close look at how likely that is. Is that a real likelihood?

What are your priorities for your first 100 days in office?

My first priority is to get the office in a state where I can manage it and to engage with the people who are there so that we can figure out who is committed to the vision, who's prepared to invest in the new vision, who is able to embrace the kind of change that the community has mandated. How do we interact internally, as well as with our stakeholders? The district attorney is part of the public protection division, so we have to be able to engage this culture shift with the public defender’s office, with the sheriff's office, with the probation department, as well as the county Board of Supervisors, and a number of other stakeholders. All of the chiefs of police are stakeholders in this office. And so for me, it’s being able to engage them in a way that we can build bridges and that we can get folks invested in the new direction that we’re going. Then we’ll really be able to move forward.

What will be your approach to people who are not on board for that type of change? 

I hold people accountable to the standards that I’ve always set. I am committed to a standard of excellence in my work. I always have been. I’m also understanding what my role is and why I’m there. And my 10-point platform is no secret — the direction that the office has to go is very clear. My view is that some people will decide that they are prepared to go in that direction and they’ll figure out how to make that happen, how they can commit themselves to the new vision. Everyone will understand what the standard is. If someone chooses not to follow that direction or is not willing to adopt the new standards, then those persons will need to be looking to go somewhere else.

I understand you met with O’Malley. I’m curious how that meeting went. 

I think that O’Malley is trying her best to provide information that’s important to ensure that the office continues to run. I think that she recognizes that she has an obligation to the staff [and] to the people of this community to try to ensure that we are successful, that we do understand how they’ve been operating so that we can make a smooth transition. I think that other folks are just very, very nervous.

What would you say are some of your first goals that are about addressing the realities for people in the justice system and survivors of crime?

Well, I think that the vision that we have, that will be shared with the staff and that I hope that they share, is that we will treat everyone with dignity and respect. That’s fundamental. We’re striving to create a system that is fair to everyone, regardless of your gender, your race, your ethnic origin, your immigration status, your ZIP code. We’ve got to have one standard of justice. I’m anticipating being in conversation with the staff about what that looks like. Where are the gaps and where do we improve to make it better?

Former San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and current Los Angeles DA George Gascón have faced recall campaigns. What lessons do you draw in watching what they faced, about how to chart a progressive course without incurring a recall? 

I don’t know that there is a way to chart a progressive course without incurring a recall. The people that initiated the recall against Chesa, we know that that was initiated before he ever took office. And certainly Gascón barely had time to take office before there was a recall. I think recalls are undemocratic tools of the right wing — people who are committed to a certain course of action in this country, who don’t believe in democracy.

What metric are you hoping people use to evaluate the success of your office? 

I will need to be talking to my deputies, but I understand, from a 21st-century prosecutor’s perspective, that I want prosecutors who want to change lives and not destroy them. Getting convictions is not always justice. It’s beyond convictions. Prosecutors have been assessed in some offices by the number of sentencing. How many years did you get? Did you get an 85-year sentence for a 15-year-old kid? At one point in Alameda County that was deemed to be the gold standard. That’s not going to be the standard in Alameda County under my administration.

When you say that the metric might be that desire to change lives, how do you measure that?

I measure it by community engagement. How engaged are you in ensuring that people with mental illness actually get the services they need? Or that a young person who doesn’t need to have a felony conviction on his first offense. How are you managing that? What alternatives are you bringing to me? What solutions are you bringing? How are you engaging with victims in this office? Are victims tools just so that you can get a conviction? Or are you really looking at the situation and giving people the opportunity, empowering victims to be engaged in the process and to have a say about how someone who has harmed or hurt them, how we’re dealing with that person. I think that that’s very important. It’s a different perspective. And I will be looking to work with the deputies to shift their views about the people that we represent, the people that we serve.

What is the role of your transition team? Will some of them stay on as advisers? 

Some folks will continue to work with us as we go forward. One of the things that I committed to do in order to make sure that this office aligned with the values of the community, was to create commissions where we would focus on, for example, providing mental health services to people in the criminal justice system. And not services in the traditional sense, but how are we as prosecutors addressing cases which involve people who have serious mental illness or have a diagnosis or are obviously suffering in some sense? We’re going to have a youth commission. We’re going to have a commission on reentry, because Alameda County has been ground central for mass incarceration for many, many decades. And we know that when folks come home, and we don’t have a plan or services, that undermines public safety. How does the county operate? How does the DA’s office engage with the county? So there’s operational things that we’ve had to focus on. And then once we’re in there, these folks are helping me lay the groundwork for the commissions that we’re going to have, which I’m very excited about.

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you would want to say about the beginning of your time as Alameda DA? 

I would say change is hard. It’s exciting. It’s a good thing for Alameda County. The reason why I ran again was because I know how broken the system is. As we make this transition, we’re finding out even more how broken it is, because now we’re looking under the hood of this machine and saying, “Oh, really? That part’s missing? That’s kind of essential!” We’re going to have to fill those holes in. How do we realign this office so that it is functional, so that it does work? The exciting part is that we do get to reset our relationships across the board — our relationships with police, our relationships with probation, our relationships with the community, our relationships with the Board of Supervisors, our relationships with elected officials, our relationships with victims and victim advocates. All of that’s on the table now.

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