County attorney candidates discuss racism in the criminal justice system
Lauren Castle, Arizona Republic
Protests over police brutality and the treatment of African-Americans have spread across Arizona, the nation and around the world.
More Americans are starting to educate themselves on the presence of racism. Not only are these conversations being held among protesters and religious leaders — but also among political candidates.
Key to that conversation is how local prosecutors respond to law enforcement officers who use excessive force, shoot individuals without reason, or otherwise behave criminally.
In Arizona communities, it is typically up to the county attorney to pursue criminal charges against officers. Four people are hoping to be the next Maricopa County attorney: Republican Allister Adel, and Democrats Julie Gunnigle, Robert McWhirter and Will Knight.
The primary election is Aug. 4. Mail-in ballots will go out in early July.
All of the candidates agree that racism does exist in our community. They spoke with The Arizona Republic about how they believe it can be fixed and how they would respond if they believed an officer committed a crime.
Who is running for county attorney?
Current County Attorney Allister Adel is the only Republican running. She was appointed in October by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors after Bill Montgomery was selected for the Arizona Supreme Court.
Adel previously provided legal consulting services for nonprofits and small businesses. She formerly worked in the County Attorney’s Office as a deputy county attorney.
In her eight months as county attorney, Adel has made many changes, including dismissing high-profile prosecutor Juan Martinez for a pattern of unprofessional behavior. Numerous allegations of sexual harassment have been made against Martinez over a number of years, by both county staff and others in the legal community.
Three Democrats are hoping to be selected as the party’s candidate in the August primary.
Robert McWhirter is a former public defender. He has worked as a Maricopa County public defender and sits on the advisory board of the Arizona Justice Project.
He helped write the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice bar charges against former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and against Martinez.
Julie Gunnigle is a former assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois. She ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2018.
She grew up in Arizona and attended University of Notre Dame Law School.
Will Knight is a former Maricopa County public defender. He also worked for Ballard Spahr and practiced in white collar crime, election law and commercial finance.
Knight went to high school in Georgia and graduated from Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
How can we prevent racism?
In the first eight days of protests in Phoenix, thousands of people have called for justice and change.
Adel stated in a news release that she supports anyone who peacefully protests, but said the office will not tolerate anyone who decides “to use dangerous, destructive or lawless actions to demand justice.”
More than 300 people have been arrested. Crimes that are considered felonies would fall under the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, while misdemeanors would be handled by city prosecutors. However, law enforcement has provided thin details to The Republic about those who were arrested.
Adel told The Republic that racism does exist in the community.
“In order to create meaningful change, it will require all of us to come together and speak out against this injustice,” she said.
She said she is working to change the culture inside the County Attorney’s Office.
Her team is creating a community advisory committee to provide input on issues. The committee is an open forum to discuss new programs and changes within the office.
It will allow the office to receive feedback and the community’s input on issues including: diversion programs, addiction and mental health, creating an inclusive culture, and working with community leaders to keep children and families safe.
“We have changed the culture of our office to look at what we do through the lens of ‘how are we helping our community,’” she said. “The men and women in this system must be character-driven professionals, focused on doing the right thing, at the right time and for the right reasons — every time.”
When answering a candidate questionnaire for the American Civil Liberties Union, Adel said race is not a consideration during charging decisions under her leadership.
“There will be zero tolerance if a prosecutor uses race, ethnicity or any other constitutionally-protected status in the prosecution of a case,” she wrote.
Knight told the ACLU he has a plan to make sure race doesn’t become a factor in charging decisions, by creating a “walled-off intake division.” When accepting submittals from law enforcement seeking criminal charges against an individual, the division would redact any information that indicates a person’s race and ethnicity that could lead to prejudice.
He explained to The Republic that data has shown this technique has worked in the private industry during the hiring process to mitigate the effects of implicit bias.
“Stripping possibly prejudicial details from documents, strictly for those who are making the initial review and recommendation for possible filing of charges, would not be a panacea or ‘silver bullet,’ but it is one powerful tool we can use to push back against systemic inequities,” he said.
McWhirter told the ACLU that as county attorney, he would keep “clear statistics” about who the office decides to charge, including race and economic data.
“The office needs to keep clear statistics, made available to the public, of who we charge and why. We must identify and track the problem as we treat it,” he wrote.
One of the ways Gunnigle wants to stop racism in the criminal justice system is supporting “raise the age” legislation. She doesn’t support prosecuting minors as adults.
“Raise the age is now a leading practice because we know that justice-involved teenagers are more successful and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system again when they are served by the juvenile justice system,” she said.
Will you prosecute officers?
According to an October 2019 report by The Republic, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office reviewed 400 police shooting cases from 2011 to 2018.
Knight told The Republic he would prosecute an officer the same way he would prosecute someone who was not one. He said no one should be above the law.
Adel said she will hold an officer accountable when there is evidence that demonstrates they should be criminally charged.
Gunnigle said a victim or their family should be able to seek justice if an officer is found to be at fault.
McWhirter told The Republic the decision to charge a police officer is one of the most serious a county attorney must make.
“I absolutely would seek justice for the victim and society,” he said. “There must not be one law to decide whether to charge a poor person of color with a crime and another law to decide whether to charge a police officer.”
Gunnigle criticized Adel for her actions related to this issue.
In a public statement regarding the recent protests and fatal deaths of Dion Johnson and George Floyd, Gunnigle stated, “In the face of this violence, our appointed County Attorney created a special First Responder’s Bureau to protect police, rather than hold them accountable by providing transparent and independent justice for our community.”
However, this bureau is not responsible for investigating misconduct allegations against officers.
It focuses on cases in which first responders are victims, including assault, gun-related crimes, robberies and vehicle accidents. The bureau also provides crisis intervention and counseling referrals.
How will you investigate officers?
In January, Adel announced former Tempe police officer Joseph Jaen would not face charges for fatally shooting a 14-year-old in 2019. Antonio Arce was running away from Jaen when he was shot. He was holding an airsoft gun with an orange tip.
The shooting prompted Tempe residents to protest at several city council meetings.
“This situation is absolutely heartbreaking. But on that day, Officer Jaen did not see a 14-year-old boy with a replica,” Adel said in January. “In that moment, he saw a suspect running through a neighborhood with a weapon.”
During the news conference, Adel said the decision was made after a thorough review of evidence, with guidance from two U.S. Supreme Court rulings and statutes concerning police use of force. The office also consulted with an independent third-party expert.
The County Attorney’s Office has a unit called the Critical Incident Review Team, led by Tom Van Dorn, that reviews cases that involve officers using force.
Adel said the independent team “reviews the evidence and then presents a recommendation to the county attorney on whether charges should be filed.”
Adel told The Republic that she makes decisions based on facts and evidence.
Gunnigle and McWhirter both told The Republic that the independent team should be more transparent to the public. They want community members to be on the team.
The current system relies on law enforcement to “investigate and prove cases,” which Gunnigle said was a conflict of interest.
“The process should be open so the public can see how decisions are made in their name,” McWhirter said. “People from the affected communities need to have a voice in the process.”
He said he would also consult with prosecutors of independent judgement and look at what the law states as to whether a crime occurred.
Knight said he would create an independent team to review these type of cases, as well. However, he would use investigators who are certified by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board and consult with a community board.
“When we determine that a police officer has committed a crime, my chief deputies and I will personally handle the prosecution truthfully, fairly, and proportionately to the harm,” Knight told The Republic.