This story was written by Walker Bragman and Andrew Perez

As high rates of police shootings and brutality in California have prompted demands for police accountability, law enforcement unions have dumped nearly $1 million into a state assembly race to try to unseat a Bernie Sanders-backed progressive legislator and longtime criminal justice reform leader, records show.

Three days after a federal judge cited prisoner abuse in ordering some California prison guards to start wearing body cameras, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) started working to oust state Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer.

Since September, the prison guard union’s political action committee has spent $200,000 opposing Jones-Sawyer, who chairs the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, and roughly $500,000 promoting his opponent, Efren Martinez.

The Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents law enforcement officers throughout the state, recently dumped $250,000 into a committee supporting Martinez. The Deputy Sheriffs' Association of San Diego County PAC just sent out $25,000 worth of mailers for Martinez.

“They want to take down Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer so they send a message to every member of the legislature that if you support criminal justice reform, they will take you out,” said Jeff Weaver, a longtime Sanders aide who is helping lead an outside group supporting Jones-Sawyer.

Pushing For Reforms

Jones-Sawyer’s uncle was among the group of “Little Rock Nine” students who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957. The California legislature recently passed a bill Jones-Sawyer authored to make it a hate crime when people call 911 to harass someone because of their race. He previously helped secure a $37.3 million carve-out in the 2018 state budget for a grant for pre-trial diversion programs.

“Right now in California, we probably spend about $300,000 per incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system right now,” Jones-Sawyer said at the time. “I could send 4 people to USC and probably 8 people to UCLA for that money each year. We need to redivert that money. The return on investment is unbelievable: We can save almost $8 billion if we can help 40,000 young people stay out of that school-to-prison pipeline.”

In recent years, racial justice protests have grown around the country to demand accountability and reforms following police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Law enforcement groups have responded with political spending: The Guardian reported in June that police unions had spent at least $87 million to influence state and local elections over the last two decades, mostly since 2010.

The recent law enforcement union expenditures to defeat Jones-Sawyer comes as California lawmakers have looked to reform the state’s criminal justice system. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a number of reforms into law, including the bill from Jones-Sawyer to prohibit false, racist 911 calls.

One bill sponsored by Black Lives Matter California would have allowed the state to "decertify" police officers who commit murder or serious acts of misconduct, rather than relying on prosecutors. California is currently one of only five states to prohibit decertification. The bill recently failed to pass the legislature amid opposition from law enforcement unions.

“Deceptive Political Ads”

While CCPOA previously donated to Jones-Sawyer, including $9,400 this election cycle, the organization started donating to Martinez in August and soon began making big independent expenditures in the race.

It also paid $15,300 to a polling firm, Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, that works for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

One recent CCPOA mailer sought to link Martinez -- a pro-business Democrat who spent nine years leading the Florence-Firestone/Walnut Park Chamber of Commerce -- with Bernie Sanders, even though the Vermont Senator is backing Jones-Sawyer.

"If you voted for Bernie," the mailer said, "then Efren is your candidate for state Assembly!” Sanders publicly refuted the mailer last week, calling it “a lie.” He added: “Deceptive political ads have no place in our political process.”

CCPOA also released a controversial video that placed a picture of Jones-Sawyer under crosshairs.

In the video, which has since been pulled, CCPOA president Glen Stailey points at Jones-Sawyer and says, “We are going to demand that the increased violence and assault on peace officers are addressed and the perpetrators are held accountable to the highest degree.”

The California Legislative Black Caucus quickly condemned the video. “This video is a part of a cyclical pattern of intimidation and brutality toward African-Americans,” the group said in a statement. “Such behavior only further undermines the public’s trust and confidence in law enforcement’s ability to keep us safe.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / D. Ramey Logan

This newsletter relies on readers pitching in to support it. If you like what you just read and want to help expand this kind of journalism, consider becoming a paid subscriber by clicking this link.

Subscribe now