By Jennifer Sarkodie and Dr. Olivia Park
On December 7, 2019, Jamaica Hampton was in the midst of a mental health crisis when he was stopped by SFPD Officers Sterling Hayes and Christopher Flores. Jamaica was shot multiple times, falling face down on the ground. At that point, he attempted to rise up one more time before being shot by Officer Flores. As a result of the gunshot wounds, Hampton nearly died and had his right leg amputated. Today, he’s just beginning to learn to walk again with a prosthetic.
Office Flores is being charged for the shooting. Hayes and Flores acted as judge, jury, and — very nearly — executioner. So why did District Attorney Chesa Boudin also decide to prosecute Jamaica Hampton alongside the officer who shot him?
Prosecutors are tasked with acting in the interest of justice; they are granted tremendous power and discretion to decide what “justice” entails, including when to press charges and what to charge. This power is known as “prosecutorial discretion”. For decades, prosecutors have used this discretion to be disproportionately punitive towards marginalized communities while ignoring the crimes of the wealthy. The War on Drugs has treated a public health crisis as a criminal one and has led to the incarceration of millions of people — people who are disproportionately Black, brown, and poor. On the other hand, employers steal billions of dollars from employees via wage theft every year, the victims of which are disproportionately Black, brown, and poor, and are rarely investigated, let alone prosecuted.
But, it seemed that DA Boudin understood that. He ran on a reform platform that included using his prosecutorial discretion to prioritize serious and violent cases, using incarceration as a last resort, and establishing a white collar crime unit. Perhaps more importantly, he promised to use his prosecutorial discretion to drop charges in cases that did not serve the interest of justice, including charges that criminalize poverty and public health issues, like public urination or drug usage.
So, how is it in the interest of justice to prosecute Jamaica Hampton a second time? Hampton has already been punished far beyond anything the legal system allows. Further, by declining to incarcerate Hampton pretrial, DA Boudin has made it clear that he does not believe that Hampton is a public safety risk.
Although the prosecution of Jamaica Hampton may not be in the interest of justice, it does seem that DA Boudin believes it is in the interest of politics. Jamaica Hampton is not a “perfect” victim. In the midst of a mental health crisis, he responded to the officers’ confrontation by striking them with a bottle; he survived, and as a result, political wisdom demanded his actions be further punished. Without context, charging Officer Flores and not Jamaica Hampton could have been perceived as an injustice, a potential public relations nightmare fueled by the deep pockets of the SF Police Officers Association (SFPOA), which never skips an opportunity to attack Boudin.
Instead of directly charging Hampton, Boudin sent the case to a grand jury to decide what charges to file. The grand jury was designed to be an independent body of citizens to protect against unfounded and oppressive prosecution. However, this concept has been perverted since its inception and is widely understood to be a tool of the prosecutor. William J. Campbell, a former federal district judge in Chicago, once said: “[T]oday, the grand jury is the total captive of the prosecutor who, if he is candid, will concede that he can indict anybody, at any time, for almost anything, before any grand jury.”
By employing a grand jury, DA Boudin has given himself cover for his actions. If the SFPOA attacks Boudin for charging Officer Flores, Boudin can assign responsibility to the grand jury. If community members condemn the unjust charges against Hampton, Boudin can again point to the grand jury. But, the words of Judge Campbell make it clear—-Boudin was entirely in control of this outcome.
It was a savvy move for a politician to make. Charging officers for acts of egregious violence is a broadly popular move in the current political climate, but dropping charges against victims of police violence who have also harmed another person, regardless of the mitigating circumstances, lacks that same popularity. And so Boudin made a calculation—to sacrifice yet another Black man to the criminal legal system in exchange for additional political cover to charge Officer Flores.
This sacrifice didn’t need to happen; Hampton was already subject to swift, vicious, extrajudicial punishment. Unfortunately, DA Boudin chose to put politics before justice.
Jennifer Sarkodie is an organizer with Defund SFPD Now, a grassroots campaign committed to re-imagining public safety by replacing policing and prisons with the life affirming care needed to support and empower us all. Dr. Olivia Park is a family medicine resident at Lifelong Medical Care and a member of the Do No Harm Coalition, a collective of healers, health workers, and activists accompanying communities affected by state sanctioned violence in our collective struggle for health, dignity, and sovereignty.