After months of community forums and intense campaigning, Alameda County voters will soon be deciding who wins one of their most important runoff elections -- district attorney.
For the first time in decades residents will be electing someone who wasn't an incumbent originally appointed to the position. It will also be the first time, regardless of the candidate, that a Black person is elected to the position.
Civil rights attorney Pamela Price is set to face off against current chief assistant deputy district attorney Terry Wiley in the Nov. 8 runoff election after Price led the four-candidate primary in June with 43.23% of the vote and Wiley came in second with 27.13%.
Outgoing District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced in 2021 she would be stepping down when her current third term in office ends after this year. O'Malley had not faced an opponent in reelection until 2018, when Price unsuccessfully challenged her as part of a wave of progressive candidates against sitting DAs in the state.
In the past, the county would typically see its sitting district attorney resign or retire midterm, resulting in a high-ranking deputy DA being appointed as their successor by the Board of Supervisors -- a tradition, controversial to some, that O'Malley broke by opting to serve out her final term and set the stage for wide-open election.
In September, Wiley and Price participated in two community forums held respectively by the youth-led Urban Peace Movement in Oakland on Sept. 29 and by the League of Women Voters of Piedmont on Sept. 19.
In the forums, Price and Wiley discussed several of their plans and goals if they were elected as well as some of the changes they would like to see in the office.
Dealing with low-level crimes
In both community forums, multiple questions circled back to how the candidates would handle low-offense crimes such as misdemeanors, which would include things like nonviolent property crimes or petty theft.
Wiley said that while cities like Oakland do see high numbers of serious offenses like murder, other nonviolent crimes need alternative solutions to helping those people who, for the most part, are doing it for the money.
"The reason behind many of those crimes are abject poverty, substance abuse, mental health issues. And so those are the crimes that you want to find alternatives to try to help the person," Wiley said in the Sept. 19 forum. "I think that you have to bring a certain amount of compassion and sensitivity as the district attorney and set policies that are going to address those issues."
Price echoed the same sentiment of looking for more alternatives for misdemeanors and called out the current DA office saying it is currently charging too many of those cases.
"We know that there's a great need to shift the focus from low-level crimes that are related to our quality of life, to homelessness, to drug addiction or mental illness," she said. "Those things need to be going into alternative justice systems."
One alternative she mentioned was creating a system of neighborhood courts that allows the community to hold others accountable.
Wiley, however, defended the current DA office in the Sept. 29 forum on how it handles misdemeanor cases and said people sleeping on the street will not be charged, but will rather get the help they need.
"We are not prosecuting people that are impoverished and living in unfortunate circumstances. I think that when you start seeing those individuals come into contact with the criminal justice system, it is because of some episode that has occurred and we don't have the proper alternatives," Wiley said. "So rather than taking someone who's having a mental episode ... to the (Santa Rita Jail), we're creating options to send them in a non custodial environment so that they're not being criminally prosecuted."
Addressing violent crimes
While Price is focusing most of her campaign on pushing for more transparency and accountability within the DA's office, one of her other priorities is to decrease violent crimes by reducing the amount of firearms on the streets, including ghost guns.
"We have got to reduce the number of guns to be able to get a handle on gun violence. As a district attorney, I can also enforce orders that restrict people's access to guns," Price said. "We have to be very aggressive about how we control gun violence in this community ... and dealing with young people coalesces with that because a lot of times, if we can intervene with young people, we can reduce the level of gun violence in this community."
As someone who is working in the DA office, Wiley said that he sees roughly the same 2,000 repeating offenders who are driving about 70% of the violent crime in the county and said he has specific plans on how to address those individuals.
"It's not a situation where we're just going to focus on those individuals and try to put them in jail," he said. "These individuals are going to be contacted ... We're going to show them that there are educational opportunities and job opportunities for them to take a look at. However, we are going to also let them know that if they don't put their guns down, and if they continue to shoot and have shootouts in the community, that we are going to take them out of the community."
He also pointed out on both forums that in regards to bail reform, weighing out cases like violent offenders matters -- unlike Price, who was very much for getting rid of what she calls punitive bail policies.
"We see the impact of it where people are held in Santa Rita county jail for years, sometimes just because they can't post bail," Price said. "Even being held in jail for a month or a day when you have committed a crime and you are presumed innocent is a travesty of justice."
Wiley refuted that by pointing out that most of the people in Santa Rita are there for violent offenses and that even though they are not yet convicted, giving everybody the ability to post bail isn't safe for the community.
Perhaps the most notable question in both forums came up during the Sept. 29 forum by the Urban Peace Movement, where candidates were asked how they would deal with police misconduct and investigations into officers.
Just recently, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office stripped 47 of its deputies from their patrol duties after finding out they did not pass their psychological evaluation exams, assigning them to desk jobs pending potential future resolution.
This came in the wake of a first-year sheriff's deputy being charged for double homicide in Dublin.
"We will break the collusive relationship between the sheriff's department and the DA's office, and we will investigate because whoever allowed these officers to be involved in those cases, that person should be held accountable and certainly we need to look at all the cases where those deputies have been given a pass by the DA's office," Price said.
Wiley also said he was concerned about the 47 deputies failing their psychological evaluations and is interested in seeing how the full investigation develops.
"I do think it's important," he said. "I'm assuming that there is an internal investigation going on at the sheriff's department to find out how it is that 47 individuals failed the psych exam, but yet were passed and allowed to become deputy-sheriffs."