May 14, 2024 - News

Denver's DA candidates promise to hold police accountable

A man in a suit jacket and light blue shirt sits in front of a microphone, while a woman seated next to him gestures with her hands while speaking into a microphone. She is wearing a gray blazer and a light blue shirt.

Denver district attorney candidates John Walsh and Leora Joseph during a forum in Denver last week. Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

Leora Joseph and John Walsh, the two Democratic candidates for Denver district attorney, arrived in the city from two distinct paths.

The big picture: The two talked about their visions for the office during a recent forum at Brother Jeff's Cultural Center in the city's Five Points neighborhood.

  • Joseph works for the state overseeing a behavioral health agency and spent 25 years primarily prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence cases in Colorado and Massachusetts.
  • Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado from 2010 to 2016, has private practice experience with federal litigation and previously served as a prosecutor focusing on white-collar crimes and fraud in Los Angeles.

Why it matters: District attorneys hold a powerful position in the criminal justice system due to their immense discretion in deciding what charges to bring against people accused of crimes.

State of play: Current DA Beth McCann, a Democrat who has served since 2017, declined to run for a third term, saying she felt she had accomplished several goals for the office.

Between the lines: Both candidates said they are committed to holding police accountable, including potentially charging officers when they fatally shoot someone — something that's rare in Denver.

  • McCann has never charged a Denver police officer for a fatal shooting, deeming shootings legally justified, which has prompted frequent criticism from local advocates.

Zoom in: Walsh said the DA's office must act independently and with neutrality when handling police crimes to ensure the public's trust.

  • Joseph said she wants to hire a director of police accountability but wants the position filled by a local resident who isn't an attorney to better understand the community's needs.

Friction point: While both candidates stressed the need for addiction and mental health services to prevent and reduce arrests, only Walsh supports a pilot for a supervised use site that would allow people to use drugs under supervision.

  • Local advocates say such a site could lower fatal drug overdoses. Both candidates supported a controversial fentanyl bill, signed into law in 2022, that lowered the threshold for felony possession, though Walsh said it might be time to "reconsider" the law.

The intrigue: Joseph said she's a "fan" of grand juries as a way to handle complex or complicated cases: "I think that that allows us to flesh evidence out a little bit better."

  • Context: It's up to the DA to decide whether to convene a grand jury. It's a tool McCann used that resulted in charges against a Denver officer involved in a 2022 shooting that left six bystanders injured.

What they're saying: DAs play the most "significant" role in the criminal justice system, greater even than judges or police, University of Denver Sturm College of Law associate law professor Ian Farrell tells us.

  • DA offices push for sentencing, including stiffer penalties in certain cases.

The bottom line: The next DA will have to balance criminal prosecutions with a community demanding more police accountability and reduced overcriminalization of people of color.

What's next: With no Republican or third-party candidates, the June 25 Democratic primary could effectively decide the race.

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