Conservative Progress 

Republican Mark Peterson is fighting to clean up the old boys' network in the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office.

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Peterson said he has not retaliated against any O'Malley supporters. In fact, he said six of his nine top managers had been in O'Malley's corner during the election. Peterson also said that news coverage of the lawsuits has given the impression that there is still distrust and sharp divisions in the office, which he said does not reflect the improved atmosphere. "On a scale of ten, I hope the esprit de corps in the office is up to a seven or eight," Peterson said, "but you're always going to have 10 percent who are disgruntled no matter what."

For decades, the DA's Office had strained relationships with Richmond and other communities in the western part of the county that have struggled with chronically high unemployment and crime rates. But in the past two years, Peterson has been able to establish working relationships with West County law enforcement agencies and social organizations like CCISCO, an interfaith group that works on a number of issues in low-income communities such as family health, community organizing, housing, and violence prevention.

Peterson's office has also been proactive in Richmond's Ceasefire program, a nationally recognized initiative designed to curb gun violence through coordinated efforts between city, county, and state partners. Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, perhaps the most progressive police chief in the Bay Area, said Peterson has been great on domestic violence issues, gun violence, and bringing together West County law enforcement agencies. Under Magnus' leadership, Richmond has managed to reduce homicides and felony assault rates by 28 percent while other East Bay cities have experienced a spike in violent crime. Magnus said Peterson has contributed to that success. "He realizes that what happens in Richmond effects the rest of the county, which is much more than his predecessors ever did," Magnus said. "I do think he can be a little more open to community input and a little more open to alternative public safety options. But overall he's been helpful and we really appreciate it."

Peterson also has won praise for his work in helping implement Governor Jerry Brown's realignment program, which is designed to reshape the justice system by developing new opportunities and policies to help prevent incarceration and reduce recidivism. The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors just approved a $20 million budget to support the effort. "Contra Costa County is becoming a model for the rest of the state for creating options to traditional law enforcement strategies and keeping the community safe," said CCISCO Director Adam Kruggel. "In the past year, there has been a surge of community organizing, and to his credit the DA has been a part of that."

But while Peterson has been able to improve his office's relationships in West County, it remains to be seen if he can improve the performance of his prosecutors in the courtroom. Contra Costa County prosecutors are legendary for their high self-regard, dismissiveness, and general hostility. Criminal defense attorney Christopher Martin, who has recently filed a lawsuit against the CoCo County Public Defender for not representing indigent defendants at arraignments, said he has never experienced such prosecutorial "smugness" in the 24 years he's been an attorney. "I've worked in Contra Costa County for the past three years, and I am just astonished at what I see," Martin said. "For example, the [deputy] DAs regularly conceal evidence from defense attorneys as a matter of course, and the judges endorse it. I have a case in which evidence in still trickling in after two years. The [deputy] DAs act as though their power is unfettered."

Over the years, Solano County defense attorney Daniel Russo has had several pitched battles against Contra Costa prosecutors and judges. He said some DA supervisors are trying to do the right thing under Peterson, but there's still room for improvement. "I haven't seen radical change," Russo said.

Veteran public defender Mike Kelley said he would like to see change in some court practices, such as bail scheduling, that give advantages to wealthy individuals. "In Contra Costa County, the courts work against defendants and particularly defendants without means," he said. "This is no place to be poor and in the court system."

Peterson said he is aware of his prosecutors' reputation and is trying to change it. He wrote a governing philosophy statement for his administration that includes the goal of treating "coworkers, opposing council, judges, and the public with respect." One senior deputy DA said management is working to make sure that the defense bar is treated more professionally. "In some cases, [deputy] DAs would be bad actors in court," he said. "And some were beyond aggressive and hostile. Disrespectful, which is the best way to describe the behavior, is the overall impression Contra Costa County [deputy] DAs have made on the court."

Peterson said he plans to run for reelection in 2014. By that time he hopes the changes he's made to the office will be reflected a bit more by the local media.

He said the key to achieving his goals over the next two years is improving communication so he is now focusing on reaching out to the counties various communities. "When I first came into office, I was busy with the budget, but now there's more time to schedule meetings with the city councils and school districts. The goal is to increase crime prevention," Peterson said. "So I am doing a lot of listening so I can find out what is expected of me and what we all can do to prevent crime."


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