Top prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland were tossed out of office by voters this week after their handling of investigations into fatal police shootings of civilians drew the ire of Black Lives Matter activists and stirred national outrage.
With incumbent defeats rare in prosecutors’ races, criminal justice analysts say the results highlight the potential for the activist group to flex its muscles and have its message resonate with voters.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who received half as many votes as opponent Kim Foxx in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, was criticized over the 13 months she waited to bring first-degree murder (or any other) charges against a Chicago police officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. Activists questioned whether any charges would have been brought had the city not been forced to release video of the shooting.
In Ohio, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty lost to Michael O’Malley, who secured 56 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
On Mr. McGinty’s recommendation, a grand jury declined to indict a Cleveland police officer in the death of 14-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot as he played with a pellet gun outside a recreation center.
The election results are surprising, given that incumbent prosecutors across the country win re-election 89 percent of the time, according to Wake Forest College law professor Ronald Wright.
The results also bring into question the job security of prosecutors who oversee notorious cases.
“If prosecutors decide to run for re-election, they overwhelmingly get re-elected and they normally get re-elected without facing any challenge at all,” Mr. Wright said. “But in those cases where there are losses, it tends to be based on the public being out of sorts on one particular case.”
Defeats are often linked to high-profile blunders such as the loss of a murder case or failure to hold a government official accountable, Mr. Wright said. Tuesday’s election results show that “a different kind of case is being added to that list.”
As Black Lives Matter activists cheer the incumbent overthrows, analysts caution that it is difficult to tell from just two elections whether the outcomes are indicative of a larger trend.
Cautioning that the swell of voters at Democratic presidential primaries in Illinois and Chicago may have affected the races, the director of the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice said sitting prosecutors are right to take note.
“They arguably shouldn’t be as comfortable as they’ve been in the past in the current climate,” said criminal justice professor Delores Jones-Brown. “I think this is at least an indication that voices that have not mattered in the past may actually be able to be heard and be able to impact.”
Nick Kachiroubas, a professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service in Chicago, notes that Tuesday’s was the first election since the McDonald video was released. The encounter captured on the police dashboard camera countered the narrative of events that police previously released. Officials said McDonald, who was carrying a knife, lunged at officers. The video showed McDonald walking away from police when Officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire, continuing to shoot for about 14 seconds even as McDonald lay on the ground.
“This does send a message that the public is supersensitive to these issues, in particular to race and police brutality,” Mr. Kachiroubas said. “It should be a message for all prosecutors that the voters want to hold someone accountable.”