DA candidate Onek seeks to bridge law enforcement,communities
by Seth Hemmelgarn
One of the top contenders so far in the race for San Francisco district attorney is criminal justice expert and former Police Commissioner David Onek, who recently told the Bay Area Reporter his campaign is about "building trust between law enforcement and the community."
He's a senior fellow and founding executive director at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, where he's worked to build partnerships between law enforcement and the community using what his website calls "innovative and research-based criminal and juvenile justice policy approaches."
The 41-year-old Onek also served in former Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Criminal Justice. He sat on the city's Police Commission from 2008 to 2010.
In an interview last month at the B.A.R.'s offices, Onek spoke extensively about his background, which includes examining alternatives to incarceration, and counseling "delinquent kids" at Walden House, a substance abuse treatment center.
He said it's also important to "keep the kids of today from becoming the adult criminals of tomorrow."
Onek referred to the Hall of Justice, at 850 Bryant Street, as "a fortress." He said the district attorney needs "to be out of the Hall of Justice all the time, in the community." He said as DA he'd be out in the city "building relationships" with people. He said he's not seen as "some hot-shot politician. I'm just seen as David."
Onek claims to have more than 1,900 public supporters. Many are considered progressives, including out gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and Rafael Mandelman, a past president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.
Backers also include former police chiefs Heather Fong and Anthony Ribera. Supervisors John Avalos and Carmen Chu, two San Francisco politicians who usually represent opposite ends of the city's political spectrum, are also listed among his supporters.
So far, Onek's main opponents are current DA George Gascón and veteran Alameda County prosecutor Sharmin Bock.
What's likely helped Onek draw progressive support is his stance on the death penalty.
"I will not seek the death penalty under any circumstances, period," Onek said. He said the death penalty isn't cost-effective, it doesn't make people safer, and it's not "fair and equitable."
He said his views on the death penalty reflect "bold leadership."
Gascón has told the B.A.R. he's "not a believer" in the death penalty, citing costs, disparities in treatment, and wrongful convictions as reasons. However, he said recently, "It's important to recognize it is state law." He's said his ideas include calling for a statewide referendum to repeal the death penalty.
Bock opposes capital punishment. However, she's said she would continue with former DA Kamala Harris's special circumstance committee to review cases individually and make recommendations on capital punishment.
Newsom appointed Gascón, who was then the city's police chief, to the DA post in January, just before Newsom became the state's lieutenant governor.
Onek said he was "absolutely" surprised when Newsom appointed Gascón as the district attorney, and he said it's "very problematic to have a former police chief" in that post.
The issue has presented controversy for Gascón, since many see it as representing a conflict of interest that hinders his ability to ensure justice.
Gasc—n has discussed accusations from Public Defender Jeff Adachi that police officers had stolen property from drug suspects or conducted illegal searches. He said that among other steps he's taken, he established a trial integrity unit and his office has been working with federal officials.
Safety for LGBTs
Onek expressed a desire to ensure safety for LGBTs. He said he sees Senate Bill 48 – the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act authored by out state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) – as a public safety bill. The bill "could lead to a drop in hate crimes," he said.
Among other things, SB 48 aims to ensure that school students learn about LGBT contributions to history. It also prohibits classroom instruction and school-sponsored activities that promote a discriminatory bias on the basis of sexual orientation.
Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill last month, but anti-gay activists are working to repeal it through a referendum.
According to Onek's August newsletter, he's raised a total of more than $283,000. Campaign finance records filed with the city show he received a total of about $126,000 from January 1 through June 30, 2011.
Bock's report shows a total of just over $240,000 came in during those six months. Jon Golinger, Bock's campaign manager, said that includes $1,000 she loaned her campaign. He wouldn't say how much she brought in in July.
According to Gascón's campaign finance report, he brought in almost $235,000 during the six-month period. His campaign didn't respond to an email Wednesday morning, August 3, asking about total contributions through July.