Why Are Prison Guards Backing the Death Penalty?

Prison Guards Oppose Prop 62

A condemned inmate stands with handcuffs on as he preapres to be released from the exercise yard back to his cell at San Quentin State Prison’s death row Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

If the 17 propositions on this year’s California ballot, few are as divisive as the issue of capital punishment. There are actually two separate initiatives targeting the death penalty: Proposition 62, which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with prison without the possibility of parole; and Proposition 66, which would speed up the process to send condemned murderers to the death chamber.

According to campaign finance disclosures compiled by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, much of the pro-death penalty campaign funding is coming directly from police and prison guard unions. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) alone spent $498,304 on Prop. 62, while the Peace Officers Research Association of California spent $455,000 and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen ponied up $250,000 to keep capital punishment.

One recent advertisement, paid for by California’s largest prison guard union, opens with grainy surveillance footage. It shows a terrified young woman squaring off with an attacker. As the woman struggles, a voice-over narrates: “Charles Ng raped, tortured, and killed women. Murdered their babies. Killed their husbands…” Another ad bankrolled by CCPOA features a few members of law enforcement explaining their support of the death penalty — and why voters should support it, too.

“I’ve seen what the worst among us can do,” says Sergeant Dan Cabral of the California Deputy Sheriffs’ Association in one video. “Killings so brutal, families never recover. That’s why we have the death penalty.”

In 2012, another ballot initiative, Proposition 34, also sought (but failed) to eliminate the death penalty. At that time, however, law enforcement unions donated a tiny fraction of what they have spent on the 2016 ballot. It begs the question: Why are law enforcement officers so intent on keeping the death penalty?

The official arguments provided by California law enforcement groups supporting capital punishment claim that the death penalty provides closure to victims’ families, saves taxpayers millions of dollars and that repealing it would jeopardize public safety.

The official arguments provided by California law enforcement groups supporting capital punishment claim that the death penalty provides closure to victims’ families, saves taxpayers millions of dollars and that repealing it would jeopardize public safety. Essentially, union officials say the death penalty process in California is broken, but they want legislators to fix it.

Brian Moriguchi, a lieutenant with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, which represents 8,800 members of law enforcement, says the death penalty should be reserved for the “worst of the worst.”

“Most police officers, by a very large margin, support the death penalty,” he says. “We’ve been to those calls where somebody has raped and mutilated a child, and we’ve seen the type of people that do that. They are a threat to the safety of others as long as they are alive. Even locked down in prison, [they are] still a threat.”

Lt. Moriguchi says there is increased support for the death penalty this year, as opposed to 2012, because of an increase in violence targeted against police officers, not just in California, but around the country. (According to FBI data released in October, 41 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2015. Already in 2016, 46 officers have been killed.)

“What has changed since 2012 is that there is a greater attack on police officers today, where people want to kill police officers,” Lt. Moriguchi says. “ We’re passionate about that this year particularly because we see the assaults on police officers increasing. We want to see justice for those police officers, and we want to see those people on death row.”

(The other top three unions behind the campaign did not return requests for comment.)

Some outside of law enforcement, however, believe the motivations to support the death penalty are far more political than practical.

Bill Zimmerman, a longtime California political campaign manager, says the current wave of law enforcement support for the death penalty is a reaction to increased scrutiny over police and prison officials. The unions, he says, are “feeling threatened by this climate of police reform. They see this as a battle in a long war, and it’s a battle they don’t want to lose. If they can win this battle, they see it as something that gives them more clout, or at least the perception that they’re a powerful political force when it comes to legislative matters.”

Zimmerman believes financial support for the death penalty is a reaction to movements like Black Lives Matter, which some police officials say undermine respect for law enforcement.

“Their support for the death penalty fits into a larger context of criminal justice reform going on in California,” Zimmerman says. “The events in Ferguson, Missouri led to a new wave of public demands for reform — of criminal justice and police behavior. We’ve seen an enormous increase in the fundraising capability of law enforcement [unions]. Organizations that used to give $5,000 to $10,000, in this death penalty fight in 2016 are giving $50,000 or $100,000.”

Both sides agree that the death penalty system is outrageously expensive, costing some $150 million per year for the state because of extra litigation costs and a lengthy appeals process. The entire death penalty system is said to have cost taxpayers $5 billion since 1978. However, rather than just get rid of it, law enforcement groups say the death penalty process should be reformed.

“Death row inmates have murdered over 1,000 victims, including 226 children and 43 police officers; 294 victims were raped and/or tortured,” the campaign explains. “It’s time California reformed our death penalty process so it works.”

Prison guard unions particularly support the death penalty, largely because their leaders say that convicted murderers would have nothing to fear (and might target prison guards) if the death penalty were not on the table. “Without the death penalty, what’s to stop the killer who’s serving life without parole, from killing inside the prison? asks CCPOA president Chuck Alexander in the latest advertisement. “It’s our last defense.”

Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus of California, disagrees with that notion, and says that even with the death penalty, a convicted murderer could still harm a guard on death row. More broadly, though, Cherry says there’s no statistical evidence to show that states with the death penalty experience fewer attacks on police officers. (In fact, the murder rate is lower in states without the death penalty.) “That’s one of the arguments that police like to use,” Cherry says. “I personally don’t think it’s convincing.”

Cherry believes police and prison guard unions feel they’re under pressure.

“There is a certain sense amongst police that times are changing, that there’s more criticism of police actions and the union leaders are hunkering down and rallying around the traditional causes that they have supported,” Cherry says.

He adds, “I don’t think that’s universal, though. You see a lot of smart police chiefs who don’t take that opinion.”

He’s right — not all police chiefs support the death penalty. A 2009 report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research group, polled police chiefs around the country about all the different methods that could be used to reduce crime. Their findings: The use of capital punishment ranked dead last, according to the police chiefs.

So what’s the disconnect? Why do union leaders and police officials continue to support the death penalty if many, at least in the privacy of an anonymous poll, agree it’s ineffective and too expensive? According to Dr. George Kain, a current police commissioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut, it’s because police unions have an “arm-in-arm” mentality.

“It’s so polarized,” says Kain, who began his career as a probation officer. “You can’t be on the fence with this if you’re a cop. The political climate now is forcing people to one side or the other. It’s easier to get pushed towards support of the bully mentality: ‘We’re gonna execute more people, and we’re gonna execute them more quickly.’”

 Dionne Wilson, widow of a slain police officer.

Dionne Wilson, widow of a slain police officer.

In California, that sort of mentality could have extreme consequences. Right now, there are 741 inmates on death row — more than any other state. However, California has only carried out 13 executions since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978. (Its most recent execution was in 2006.)

As of mid-October, opponents of Prop. 62 (which would keep the death penalty legal) have raised about $4.3 million, compared to $8.9 million raised by groups that want to abolish the death penalty. Supporters of Prop. 66 (which would speed up the death penalty process) have raised $4.9 million, compared to the $10 million collected by its opponents. Put simply, groups supporting the death penalty are being outspent by about 2-to-1 by groups that oppose it.

However, the most recent polls are showing a tight race; there is a slight lead for proponents of abolishing the death penalty, but only by a slim margin. Nationally, support for the death penalty is waning. A September 2016 Pew Research poll found that support is currently the lowest in more than four decades.

Regardless of national sentiment, law enforcement leaders within California, such as Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, are hoping voters will keep (and reform) capital punishment on November 8. “The public and law enforcement recognize that [capital punishment] makes our communities safer by acting as a deterrent and ensures that the most violent criminals will never be released into our communities again,” Jones, the president of California Peace Officers’ Association, wrote in a recent letter.

But they are facing an increasing amount of opposition, not just from wealthy anti-death penalty advocates — but from crime victims as well.

One of them is Dionne Wilson. Wilson’s husband, Dan Niemi, was a police officer in San Leandro, California who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2005. Irving Ramirez, 23, was charged and convicted of Niemi’s murder.

At the time of his sentencing, Wilson says, she “begged” the judge for a death penalty sentence. On August 3, 2007, Wilson got her wish. (Ramirez remains alive and on death row.)

But as the years went on, Wilson’s opinion began to change about the death penalty. She no longer supports it — in fact, she’s on a crusade to get the death penalty repealed. Instead of executions, Wilson wants to see legislators use that $150 million go towards victim services, programs to treat mental illness and drug addiction, education and afterschool programs, and other crime reduction initiatives.

“I understand that type of vengeance-based reaction,” she says. “Trust me, I get it. But there seems to be a lack of analysis in that position.”

She adds, “Our criminal justice dollars are misused in this way. It’s frustrating to me. It’s just ‘cop killers deserve to die.’ Well, okay, but is there a better way to hold people accountable than propping up a system that has wasted $5 billion for the past 30 years? I can certainly think of better ways to invest that money.

Eric Markowitz
Capital & Main

Eric Markowitz has written for the New Yorker, GQ, Newsweek, the Atlantic and other publications. In 2016 he received two awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for his coverage of the United States prison system.

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