Finding justice requires leadership at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office

Facing the Tempe City Council in Jan. 31, 2019,, Puente member Maria Castro said, "This is not a war zone, but you make it feel like one." Castro was joined by other members of the community in a "demand for justice" for 14-year-old Antonio Arce who was killed by a Tempe police officer. Photo by Thalia M. España | Cronkite News

As a mother of a child lost to senseless gun violence, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel’s recent decision not to charge a Tempe police officer in the death of a teenager hits hard.

Every day, I live with the pain of having lost my son. My heart partners with the wrenching heartache of 14-year-old Antonio Arce’s mother, who is enduring the senseless loss of such a tender life, and the knowledge that the person responsible will not be held accountable.

Antonio was shot in the back as he ran from police carrying nothing but a toy gun. This fatality was one of the most egregious among the countless stories of police violence in Maricopa County. Our community continues to ache from young Antonio’s murder and from the repeated bloodshed caused by local police.

These tragedies become even more difficult because the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office almost never prosecutes police when they are accused of killing, hurting, or terrorizing people in the community. The prosecutors who claim to work for justice are uninterested in seeking it when the people causing harm are wearing a badge.

Still, I struggle with the word “justice” in the context of our current system. Prosecuting the cop in this case would not restore the harm that was done. It will not bring this little boy back or bring his mother and family peace. This is the misunderstanding we all have about “justice.” We cannot achieve true “justice” within a system that is not broken, but rather operating as it was intended — to protect the powerful and continue the oppression of marginalized people. It’s a system that must be transformed, not reformed.

In 2020, we have a chance to take steps toward achieving that transformation. For the first time ever, there is a contested Democratic primary for Maricopa County Attorney. All five Democratic candidates have said they are committed to putting forth real solutions to tackle police brutality and misconduct.

In January, the Democratic candidates participated in a town hall hosted by the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix and the ACLU of Arizona. Adel didn’t bother to show up. The candidates who did show up, though, all demonstrated that they care deeply about holding police, like Antonio Arce’s killer, to justice in the same way they’d hold any other person accused of a crime accountable.

Those policy changes could look like creating a unit of independent prosecutors to investigate police brutality cases in an unbiased way — separate from the prosecutors who work side-by-side with local police departments in their daily work. It could look like creating a community advisory board to approve the decisions put forth by the independent prosecuting unit before they can stand.

But it’s also critical for these candidates to look beyond prosecution and think critically about why our system of justice sees prisons and punishment as the sole path to accountability.

To achieve transformation within the state’s largest prosecuting agency, we need candidates willing to stop seeing prisons and prosecutions as the only options. County attorneys have the power to require their prosecutors to stop pursuing charges for certain crimes altogether, like shoplifting or drug possession. They have the power to require their prosecutors to stop asking judges to set cash bail so people aren’t held in jail before they’ve even had their day in court. We need a candidate who is willing to be bold and implement the power of the county attorney’s office to bring about the least harm and the greatest good for our communities.

As Adel continues to hide from the people she was appointed — not elected — to represent, the other candidates are already making transformative changes part of their policy platforms. But let’s be clear: they wouldn’t be emboldened to take these stances if it wasn’t for years of community organizing that created the landscape for these candidates to feel politically safe in making these declarations.

It was people most affected by over-incarceration who organized, registered voters, and successfully ousted the county’s racist, hateful, sheriff from office in 2016. It was people most affected by over-incarceration who led the charge to recall the creator of SB1070 in 2011.

In 2020, it will be people most affected by over-incarceration that will help elect a county attorney who ends the culture of overly harsh prosecution and brings in a new dedication to restorative, rehabilitative justice. And we’ll be around long after Election Day to ensure whoever takes the seat follows through with the promises they make on the campaign trail.