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Saturday, March 04, 2006 | Bonnie Dumanis is the working on her fourth year as district attorney, the first female to hold the post in San Diego County’s history and the first openly gay individual to be the top prosecutor in any U.S. county. Ensconced in a literal fight with (the old, not new) City Hall and pushing for stricter laws against sex offenders, Dumanis announced that she will run for reelection this year.
Dumanis is headquartered in a13th floor office overlooking the San Diego Bay at the downtown Hall of Justice. Her desk is a virtual amphitheatre, surrounded with photographs of loved ones – her mother, father, partner Denise and golden retriever Jake. Also flanking Dumanis are a bobblehead doll with the likeness of Sheriff Bill Kolender, photos of her posed with fellow politicos and the pictures of San Diegans she’s never met.
The inanimate observers that crowd around her workspace glean some of the details about Dumanis, but it’s the signed portrait of Dennis Franz far from Dumanis’ desk that she’s most eager to talk about.
“And that’s Andy Sipowicz over there,” she blurts out with a giggle, referring to the tough-as-nails cop Franz portrayed on “NYPD Blue.” “I love those shows, and I know all the characters.”
Voice of San Diego sat down with Dumanis this week to chat with her about fighting crime, county style.
You announced you want to run again. What are your big accomplishments in your first term?
I promised to create three new units and I’ve done that. The Cold Homicide Unit to solve all the more than 2,000 unsolved murders here in San Diego County. They’ve already solved over 11 cases. That’s been really important to the families that need to have some justice and closure in their cases.
The Major Narcotics Unit … the Sexual Assault and Stalking unit. That’s the one that’s gotten a lot of attention because of the sexually violent predators and sex offenders. They monitor them and also try to keep them in custody as long as possible.
You’re the first female District Attorney in San Diego County. Do you think there’s inherently a sort of machismo about lawyering?
No, not about lawyering. I do think there’s a stereotype of someone in law enforcement. There are only four elected women District Attorneys in the state of California.
Why is it important to guard against conflict of interest in government?
When you’re serving as a fiduciary, that means you have a special trust with whomever you’re serving and, if you’re thinking of yourself or thinking of someone else to benefit, then of course it’s going to be to the detriment of the organization you’re supposed to be serving. We’ve seen it all through politics.
Public service is meant to be just that: public service. And those of us that serve in public service know that we tend not to make as much as other people in private industry. You’re not in it to make money for yourself. You’re in it to serve the people. You always have to be very cautious and think about what you’re doing and think about not just whether there is an actual conflict but whether or not there’s appearance of a conflict.
It’s something we, of course, have been very active in from the David Malcolm case, which was the first (Government Code Section)1090 case we filed. There are very few (1090) cases that have been prosecuted in the state and this is our second one.
One of the things that is important to me is going after election fraud as well as corruption. So, in order to get somebody with some expertise in the Fair Political Practices Act, we sent somebody up to Sacramento whose actually working with the Fair Political Practices Commission for six to eight months. He’s doing their cases and being trained by them so that when he comes back here, he will be an expert. And not only are we going to be reactive – ie. going after people – but we’re going to be proactive and go out and train elected officials and government officials in what to avoid. I think it’s important for us to train people so that when we go after them we know that they have an understanding of what they’re doing and to help them avoid the pitfalls.
There was a push about a year ago for the District Attorney to take over the misdemeanor prosecutions at the city. Is that something that’s still on your radar and something you’d like to explore?
Well, I think the city, is, you know, looking at different ways to save money. Every other county in California, except Los Angeles and San Diego, does it the other way. In other words, the district attorney handles all the criminal cases. That’s something for the city maybe to take a look at down the road.
How is [former San Diego City Attorney] Casey Gwinn as an employee?
He’s a great employee. He’s, right now, the director of victim services. His forte has always been in the area of domestic violence and serving victims and he was on the forefront of the family justice center and has continued to remain active in that movement across the nation. And he brings that stature to his position as the head of the victim services.
You guys are also responsible for investigating police shootings. Can you take me through the criteria of determining whether or not a shooting is just?
We do all state and local law officers who are involved in shootings – whether they be fatal or non fatal.
A law enforcement officer has the same self defense rights as you and I do, but, in addition, they have even more when they are chasing a fleeing felon or making an arrest. The bottom line is the officer has the right to use deadly force if he or she is in danger of great bodily danger or life-threatening danger to his or herself or to the community at large.
We don’t look at – and this is what’s confusing to the public sometimes – we don’t look at whether or not it shouldn’t have happened. In other words, were there violations of policy or procedure? Is it tactically a bad idea they did it this way? All we look at is, did they do anything that was not justified by law in self defense?
Who makes those other determinations?
Each agency usually has an internal-affairs division that looks at whether or not their policies and procedures have been followed and whether or not any disciplinary actions should be taken because of what happened. We have a special-operations division that handles any officers that get involved in any kind of crime. We’ve prosecuted a San Diego police officer who was selling stolen property on eBay. We have a current El Cajon police officer we’re prosecuting right now for allegedly asking for sexual favors.
How does drug court work?
The drug court takes non-violent felony offenders who have substance-abuse issues – in other words, people who are addicts first and commit crimes to support their habit. They plead guilty. We put them on probation, but they come to court. And every week they get tested three or four times. They have to go to counseling. We have the defense attorney, the prosecutor, the judge, law enforcement and treatment, all working together to keep these people clean, sober and productive. We’ve graduated, in San Diego County, over 1,000 people. We have probably now 20 babies that have been born not addicted to drugs that would have been addicted before this. It’s an excellent program with about an 85-percent success rate. But it takes a lot of man- and woman-power and a lot of financial resources, that’s why we can’t do it for everyone. We have 8,000 cases a year that could be drug court cases.
Whether you get elected this next year or not, what is it that you’d like the Dumanis legacy to be?
I would like to have a legacy of bringing the office together to create a safer San Diego.
Not only do we have to worry about vigorously prosecuting but preventing or stopping revolving-door recidivism. We’re working on a re-entry program, which is a program to stop people coming out of prison from going back into prison. In California, two-thirds of those people that come out of prison go back to prison in their first year. It’s the highest rate in the United States.
Do you mind telling me about the things that are on your desk, some of these photos?
This is Stephanie Crowe (the Escondido girl who was murdered. Her brother and friends stood trial before another man was identified as a suspect and later convicted). When I ran for election, one of the things that was a big issue was the handling of the Crowe case. I told the family – I became pretty close to the family – that when I became elected I was going to keep a picture of Stephanie on my desk to remind me that every case is important. What happened to Stephanie ruined a family.
This young man is Mikey Beckworth. He is one of the young men that was killed in Southeast San Diego. It’s a constant reminder that we have to do everything we can to stop gang violence. I think right now we have 111 murder or attempted murder cases pending.
Here’s mom and Dad and my partner Denise.
Who’s the Bobblehead?
That’s (Sheriff) Bill Kolender. It’s a signed bobblehead – worth a lot of money.
– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN