Recent election cycles have seen a surge in the number of women, particularly women of color, running for elected office. Now, months after the highly anticipated 2020 election came to a close, two women have already their eyes set on two major elected positions in their county—and if they’re elected, they could make history.
JoAnn Walker and Pamela Price are running on a joint bid for Alameda County sheriff and district attorney, respectively. Alameda County is one of the most populous counties in California and has jurisdiction over 14 cities and six unincorporated counties, including Oakland and Berkeley. The election isn’t until 2022, but the two women aren’t wasting any time.
Price, a longtime civil rights attorney, and Walker, a 25-year San Francisco police officer, announced their bid in January. Among other issues they plan to work on together, the pair says they are committed to police accountability, reducing and preventing gun violence, establishing a new system for youth justice, and abolishing cash bail.
Both could make history if elected, becoming the first Black women to ever hold those positions in the county. This is Price’s second bid for district attorney after running in 2018 against current District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who has held that seat since 2010. Walker is running against incumbent Sheriff Gregory Ahern, who has held that position since 2007.
In honor of Black History Month and their history-making efforts, Price and Walker sat down with me for an interview about their qualifications for the job, their experience running for office as Black women, the obstacles they anticipate they’ll run up against, and how they plan to work together if both are elected.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Carolyn Copeland: You two are running on a joint bid for district attorney and sheriff, which is something you don’t see happen a lot. At what point did the two of you meet, and when did you decide to run together?
Pamela Price: I first metJoAnn in August of 2019. She’s engaged in a fight with the San Francisco Police Department right now around their failure to promote her, and I became her legal representative. As a result of that I got to see who she is and I realized that she is the kind of person that has the experience as well as the aptitude that we really need in Alameda County. So, I asked her to run. When you ask a man to run for office, he’s right there and says “Yes, I’m ready,” but a woman you have to ask seven times to get her to run. And so I kept asking JoAnn and telling her, “We need you to run,” and I gave her a year to think about it because it’s a huge decision and it’s completely life changing. And so in August of 2020, she came back and said that she was willing to run.
Copeland: In recent years, we’ve seen a surge in the number of women, especially women of color running for elected office. However, Black women face a lot of extra barriers when it comes to receiving support and raising enough funds. Are there any barriers you anticipate coming up against, solely because you’re Black women?
Price: Sure, I can speak to that having run this race previously. As a Black woman, my qualifications were questioned. I’ve been to the United States Supreme Court. I’ve been practicing law for 40 years. I went to an Ivy League school. I’ve got the best education you can get in this country. I’ve run my own business for 30-something years and served as the executive director of a nonprofit and have been on board of directors—but somehow I wasn’t qualified. That was shocking to me. Like, really? You’re actually questioning my ability to manage lawyers and to decide to litigate cases? That was shocking. People were like, “She’s a Black woman. She can’t possibly do the job.” So, the double standard is there. We’re not seen as competent, qualified, or capable. There’s a whole lot of assumptions about what we can’t do and that we’re not capable of handling all of this, and that’s fundamentally the problem.
JoAnn Walker: I agree with Pam 100%. My qualifications were questioned as well. Oftentimes, people don’t think you’re knowledgeable enough to be trusted, or that you have the skill set that is needed in order to go out and be effective. I’m very effective in what I do, so I pay no attention to those people. I stay focused on what I need to do to improve myself every single day, including going out and taking classes on my own to ensure that I have the most current information about the rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, and develop people skills so that I can be effective and train others to be effective leaders. I’ve done that throughout my career.
Copeland: Pamela, this is your second time running for Alameda County DA. I have a relative who has run for office in California several times and hasn’t yet been elected, so I know the emotional and financial toll it takes to put yourself out there. However, we’re living in a different climate right now—especially a different racial climate—than when you ran a couple years ago. How do you think that’ll impact your campaign this time around, and why do you think this time will be different?
Price: I think it’s very positive. For the first time, people are willing to talk about white supremacy and what that means. Our race challenged white supremacy because I was the first Black woman to run for district attorney in this county and I was talking about the racial injustice in our criminal justice system. That was revolutionary for people in this county because they just hadn’t even thought about it. Now, everybody gets it. Well, I won’t say everybody, but certainly there’s an awareness in the post-George Floyd era for so many people who didn’t understand what we meant when we said white supremacy or white privilege.
Beyond that, people are realizing there’s something wrong with the criminal justice system, and they’re willing to ask questions and listen to those of us that have experienced it and seen it and have been fighting it. There’s a receptivity about it.
Copeland: Many women, especially women of color, experience imposter syndrome, where they feel they’re not good enough or that they don’t belong in a certain position regardless of their qualifications or their level of achievement. As successful Black women, have you ever experienced imposter syndrome, especially since you’re both running for positions that no Black woman has ever held before?
Price: The last time I felt that way was when I was 17 years old and I got accepted into Yale. I went to an all-Black high school, so I definitely felt like an imposter. Fortunately, I was put in a position where I was on the playing field with others and I quickly realized that I was as smart as the others, that I was a better writer than most people, and that I had gotten a good education—both from my birth mom who was a teacher, as well as my teachers at my all-Black high school. I don’t have that issue anymore, and it was a blessing that I was able to have that experience.
Copeland: What about you, JoAnn?
Walker: Well, I never thought about it from that perspective once I got into law enforcement. Prior to coming in, my mentor said to me, “What you have, we can’t teach people.” He said, “You have something that you bring to law enforcement that is unique and different. We send people to school so that they can learn how to be police officers, and you already have it.” So he prepared me mentally, physically, psychologically, and emotionally for this job. And so now, running for office, this is a continuum of where I’ve already been.
Copeland: Let’s pivot to policy. What are some of the other major issues you feel need to be addressed in Alameda County right now?
Walker: I can give you a few. One is addressing the issues at Santa Rita Jail and the deaths that have occurred there. I’m concerned about the budget. I’m also concerned about the over 1,200 rape kits that have not been handled. I would like to make sure that there is safety in the community, and in order to do that, I have to make sure that I do a good job of developing a rapport and getting to know the community as sheriff so that they know that when issues come up that are within my jurisdiction or my authority that I’m going to handle them and make sure that things are handled in a timely fashion.
Copeland: You’re both running on a platform of police accountability. What does that look like to you?
Price: We have a horrible, horrible record of police accountability in Alameda County. The current administration has turned a complete blind eye, and that’s understandable given [O’Malley’s] close relationship and partnership with the sheriff and not wanting to infringe on his scope or his domain. So, basically they’re partners and he’s gotten a free pass on things that have happened at the jail. The same goes for our police departments, where the district attorney has the power and the ability to hold bad cops accountable for bad acts, and she hasn’t done that. As a result, it’s made our community less safe. It has completely eroded public trust. It has left the survivors and the families of people who have experienced police violence completely distraught and ignored. Across the county, we’ve paid millions and millions of dollars for police misconduct, which could have been avoided if we had had some accountability baked into the system. But we don’t have that.
Walker: Yes. We have young people who feel like, “You know what? The police are not going to help me,” so they feel like they need to take things into their own hands. We cannot any longer—nor should we have ever—turned away when there was evidence that led us to the fact that an officer did something that was wrong. When we don’t penalize the people who are killing our young people, or anyone in our community, it makes the community at large feel like we’re a part of it and they can’t trust us.
Pam and I both agree we must stop that. We want the community to know that we work for you. I come to work every day to work for the community. It doesn’t matter to me that you don’t look like me. What does matter though, is people who look like me should get a fair chance through the system to prove their innocence if they’re innocent. Then, if they’re not, we should have things in place so that we can redirect them from crime into becoming a part of the community.
Copeland: How can you build trust between police and the community when tensions are as high as they are?
Walker: Well, first, in terms of community-oriented policing, I’d have a conversation with the community so that they understand that when they do have concerns, their concerns will be addressed and I will listen. Then I will make sure we can develop a solution to the problem. I’m not a person who knows everything. I’ll work in tandem with the community. Then from there, I’d have to decide whether or not I need a task force or a liaison person who can work in specific communities so they can bring back information that I can use that information to develop appropriate solutions.
Copeland: In California, there’s been a big push to eliminate juvenile detention centers. What are your stances on youth justice?
Walker: Well I can start. One of the things that I would like people to know is that the DA and the sheriff will set the tone for the way juveniles are handled and treated. One of the things that I know is that teenagers, their brains are not developed. We really do have to follow the science on that. So, to arrest a juvenile and charge a juvenile as an adult—and Pam can speak more to that—and then to lock them up until they’re 65 or 75 years old, that doesn’t help that person and it doesn’t restore justice. So, we have to intervene in that process so that we can redirect juveniles to a program of some sort so that they understand that they made a mistake and that you have to be responsible for what you’ve done. Then, we have to give them the opportunity to see themselves differently. Locking juveniles up until they’re 65 or 75 years old doesn’t help them, it doesn’t help their families, and it doesn’t solve the problem.
I would like to add that Pam and I are not soft on crime. We just understand that these children are under-developed psychologically, so we need to get in there and do something different because what we’re doing is not working.
Price: Exactly. As district attorney, I will follow the science, as JoAnn referred to it. We know that holding juveniles accountable in the same way as a person who is 30 and 40 years old is just nonsense. It’s really barbaric. It’s important for us not only to address that in the context of juvenile justice as we know it—which goes up to the age of 18—but really to start to move toward a system that addresses people under the age of 25 and create alternative systems of justice. We really need to address people under the age of 25 in an age-appropriate way.
Also, we need witness protection in Alameda County. I represented the family of a young man who was killed because he cooperated with the police. I was as shocked as anyone to learn we don’t have a witness protection program. It’s crazy. Public safety requires public trust, and until the district attorney is aggressively trying to do things that will restore the public trust, we’re not going to get at the heart of violent crime or be able to bring our crime rate down.
Copeland: In California, we have two district attorneys who have made national news on several occasions for their progressive ideas and policies: San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and former San Francisco District Attorney and current Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. Pamela, if you’re elected as Alameda County district attorney, do you plan on adopting any of their policies?
Price: Absolutely. One of the premier programs that I got familiar with and would love to bring Alameda County is the neighborhood courts program, which is based on restorative justice and is a way for low-level crimes to be diverted from the criminal justice system and put on a different track where people in the community get to hold someone accountable for the harm that that person may have caused. That person gets to see the harm that they’ve caused and put a face to the person who might own that car that they just broke into or to the person who owns the computer that they stole or to the person who they have harmed in some way. I know, having been someone who’s been targeted by the criminal justice system, that there are alternative ways of addressing the harm that people cause you and that the community needs to have a voice in how that’s done. George Gascón has also provided a victim’s survival board that focuses on how the criminal justice system addresses victims and survivors.
Certainly Chesa has done well to reduce the number of people who have been incarcerated by investing in alternatives to incarceration. He’s been very proactive about using the tools that the legislature has now provided for resentencing. We know that long sentencing and enhancements do not make us safe.
Copeland: A lot of progressive sheriffs around the country have severed their ties to ICE and refuse to work with them. As sheriff and DA, how do you plan to handle undocumented immigrants who come through the prison system?
Walker: As long as we are dealing with county and state laws that are a felony at this point, then, their record or whether or not they are undocumented may come into to play—or it may not, depending on the situation. Them being undocumented doesn’t matter. When they come into a facility and it is for breaking the law, their citizenship should not matter, unless it is above what I am responsible to do. That means I have to get the correct information, I have to follow the policies and the procedures, and I have to make sure that everyone is on the same page about that. But if you come in because you have done something that you’ve broken a law, then it’s my responsibility to make sure that we cover the city laws and the state laws.
It’s very important that the two top people in Alameda County set the tone for the manner in which justice is going to be served. If they are within our borders and they’re now in our facilities, we have to make sure we are not treating them in a way where they are being discriminated against because they’re not Americans.
Price: Certainly our district attorney’s office has a horrible history of using people’s immigration status as a weapon against them and has engaged in practices that have resulted in unnecessary deportations of residents who may have had some engagement with the criminal justice system but were fully as much a member of our community as anybody else. So, the disparities that have been characterized in the system between immigrants and non-immigrants, we need to address that. For instance, we have Dreamers. We have people who have been here and have lived their whole lives here, and I don’t want to be part of a machine that says, “Okay, because you got in trouble with the law, now you have to go back to a country you know nothing about.”
We also know the system has been much more harshly used against people from Haiti or Africa than someone from Germany or other places. I’m very sensitive to that and I know that that’s something that will have to be addressed as well.