In an October 26, 2023 interview with CBS News reporter Jon Delano, Allegheny County District Attorney (DA) incumbent Stephen Zappala said he has thought about using his office to take over policing in the City of Pittsburgh. Zappala claims he can pursue a court order to control the police department based on what he characterized as lax enforcement standards demonstrated by lower arrest rates under Mayor Ed Gainey’s, Pittsburgh’s first Black Mayor’s, leadership.
THINLY VEILED EXCUSES
There are many disturbing aspects of a DA trying to parlay lower arrest rates into a power-grab, not the least of which is that DAs should be pivotal actors in reducing crime and increasing public safety. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Zappala’s thoughts of stripping Mayor Gainey’s of his authority to manage law enforcement are real. In May of 2023, we published a summary of egregious state legislative actions to usurp power from Black leaders but approaches like Zappala’s make it clear that Black leadership will be challenged through each branch of government as reactionary conservatives attempt to claw back control of historically oppressive institutions.
In April of 2023, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed House Bill 1020 into law. The bill created a separate judicial and law enforcement district in the recently expanded “Capital Complex Improvement District” in the state capital of Jackson, catering lopsidedly to affluent and white residents. Despite challenges from local organizers and the NAACP, in September of 2023, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that even though the appointment of 4 judges by the court’s own Chief Justice to the new district court is a violation of the state constitution, it is statutorily permissible under “emergency circumstances” – an emergency created by the deliberate and systematic decades of underfunding of judicial and law enforcement resources by the same actors who initiated the new district and court.
Jackson’s Mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, denounced the creation of these separate police and judicial systems as a step toward creating apartheid on national media.
St. Louis, Missouri’s first Black, female Mayor, Tishaura Jones, narrowly outmaneuvered five bills (HB 53, HB 213, HB 216, HB 306, and HB 702) in 2023 aimed at handing control of St. Louis City Police to a state-run board. Now conservative lawmakers in the state government remain focused on regaining control of St. Louis’s local police, and pressure is already building for another attempt by Missouri House lawmakers in 2024.
Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp did not use 2023 to create a separate (and unequal) police force or court like Mississippi, nor did he attempt to gain direct control of the policing in a major American city as Missouri’s legislators did. Instead, Gov. Kemp undermined the authority of local district attorneys by signing a law to make it easier to remove them from office. Fani T. Willis, the Black district attorney in Atlanta, views the Republican-sponsored bill, SB 92, as racist and as possible retaliation for her ongoing investigation of former President Donald J. Trump and his attempts to change election results after his narrow loss in Georgia in 2020.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis removed two Democrats elected as state prosecutors for perceived leniency and refusal to prosecute certain offenses. Most recently, in August 2023, DeSantis suspended Monique Worrell the Black, female, Democratic State Attorney for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit for what he called “dereliction of duty.” DeSantis’ ousters are not limited by race or gender. He dismissed twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, a white, male Democrat, for not prosecuting abortion and gender-affirming cases in August of 2022.
In February of 2023, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House took a page from the DeSantis playbook when they voted to impeach Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney. Krasner is a white, male, liberal DA whose prior practice specialized in criminal defense and civil rights. He has filed more than 75 civil rights lawsuits against the police for corruption and physical abuse. While Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court issued a split decision rejecting GOP charges of “misbehavior in office” for declining to prosecute some minor crimes, some Pennsylvania Courts may side in favor of actions like Stephen Zappala’s contemplating taking control of the City of Pittsburgh Police Department.
POISED TO TAKE MORE
In October 2023, Republican Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was elected as the state’s next governor, a position from which he and the GOP-majority legislature will be well-positioned to take similar action against New Orleans’ first Black, female Mayor, LaToya Cantrell, and the New Orleans Police Department.
These tactics are part of a broader push by conservative lawmakers and affiliates around the country to undermine Black and Liberal leadership, despite an increasingly diverse population, under the guise of halting what newly-elected House Speaker Mike Johnson has referred to as the “great replacement theory”, also called “white replacement” theory. While “replacement” theory is derived from unabashedly racist and conspiratorial online communities like QAnon, its adherents are not studying a theory. Instead, they are actively changing how our cities, states, and federal government interact by appropriating law enforcement authority from local leadership.
These facts are not intended to generate the kind of unfounded paranoia that “replacement” theory has created. They are stated to inspire increased vigilance and participation in democratic self-determination. Those seeking to strip local governments of authority are taking action from executive, legislative, and judicial positions, and every vote for a true representation of all people has never been more important.