SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow may be up for re-election in 2022, but that’s not stopping him from courting voters in all the wrong places and undermining the integrity of his office in the process.
Traditionally, the role of District Attorney is a nonpartisan one. There’s a reason for that. Adding partisanship to the traditionally nonpartisan District Attorney position can create the appearance of bias and partiality. In other words, politics can play a significant factor in determining whether or not a case is properly or thoroughly pursued.
Around the time when 20-year-old Black protest organizer Tianna Arata was arrested after one of her protests in July, Dow was commenting on the protest on his Facebook page. We later learned the decision to arrest Arata was made in coordination with Dow’s office and the San Luis Obispo Police Department. Before Dow announced that he was pursuing 13 misdemeanor charges against Arata, Black Lives Matter protesters and Arata supporters called for him to drop his case against her. In September, when protesters attempted to submit over 500,000 petitions demanding that her charges be dropped, Dow’s office rejected them, stating in part, “While mindful of the complexity and sensitivity of the broader social justice conversation, we would be in violation of our ethical duty if we were to make a filing decision based on public sentiment.”
Let’s talk about public sentiment.
In their statement to the media, the District Attorney’s Office was clearly referencing public sentiment coming from people who wanted Arata’s charges to be vacated. But his office’s statements steered clear of any mention of public sentiment from people who wanted him to charge Arata to the fullest extent of the law.
“Protect Paso” is an invite-only Facebook group originally created to support law enforcement amid Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout SLO County. “Protect,” a local brand of Facebook groups that have appeared throughout the county, is also widely recognized as a hotbed for far-right extremism, conspiracy theories and calls for violence against protesters. In September, Dow wrote a lengthy post to members of Protect Paso, explaining why he couldn’t pursue felony charges and only 13 misdemeanor charges against Arata. Dow wrote that he refused to be bullied by critics from the political left or right, but the fact he chose to share his opinions exclusively to a far-right, invite-only group shows the side he chooses to appease.
When The Tribune offered him an opportunity to write an opinion piece that would speak to all county residents, he declined “primarily due to a lack of bandwidth and time to devote to it.”
Dow certainly had enough bandwidth and time to devote to declaring SLO County a “sanctuary county” for worship during COVID-19 — during a time when the state limited secular and nonsecular indoor gatherings. In his July 21 Facebook post, Dow decried the public health and safety risks associated with Black Lives Matter protesters blocking Hwy. 101. But just weeks earlier, Dow spoke at a Fourth of July event in Paso Robles, talking about how he would overlook legal breaches of health and safety guidelines if those breaches were indoor religious gatherings. His comments, which were later reiterated by the District Attorney’s office in an official capacity, were made days before the New York Times reported that churches have emerged as a major source of coronavirus spread throughout the country. As of October 17, Paso Robles currently has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Dow certainly had enough bandwidth and time to promote his “sanctuary county” declaration on a radio show hosted by the Family Research Council, a designated anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Dow certainly had enough bandwidth and time to speak at a mask-less and clustered Pismo Beach fundraiser for “New California,” a fringe political secessionist movement, in October alongside controversial conservative activist Candace Owens. The “Calexit” movement has largely been fueled by Russian trolls. New California was essentially borne from Calexit. And Owens, who has downplayed the rise of white nationalism, has referred to Black Lives Matter as “domestic terrorism” and believes that systemic racism is an imaginative construct of “white guilt.” Dow told The Tribune he found Owens to be “inspirational.”
Was Dow inspired by Owens enough to file charges against six Black Lives Matter protesters two days after the New California fundraiser — over a protest that happened nearly three months ago? Dow’s decision to bring additional charges to protesters was met with scrutiny from the local Black Lives Matter movement after it was revealed the first three protesters that were announced as receiving charges were Black. Recognizing the backlash, the District Attorney’s office quickly announced they were filing charges against three white protesters. DA’s office blamed the strange rollout of their filed complaints on unspecified “various processing issues with the court.”
Given Dow’s history of partisan activities and comments — and the fact that California voters are currently receiving and mailing in their ballots for the 2020 presidential election — the timing of all this is very suspect. And if his support of his wife’s t-shirt is any indication of his views on expressing American dissent, we’re in trouble.
While Dow is spending his time politicking, his pile of unresolved cases continue to increase. Since July, I’ve heard from relatives and friends of victims who have waited months and years for the District Attorney’s office to pursue charges and bring these outstanding cases to trial. These are people who aren’t involved in politics, but know enough about the politics to understand why Dow is too distracted from being the victims’ rights advocate he often claims he is. We will be hearing from their voices.
Dow is entitled to his views and obvious political ambitions. He likes to remind the media of his First Amendment right to express himself at private gatherings — as if to imply there’s some covert attempt to deny him that right. The problem is that his personal politics has not only become a distraction from faithfully executing his duties, but it’s also creating immeasurable conflict with what’s supposed to be an impartial elected position. This should shock the conscience of everyone in the legal profession in SLO County. This is especially shocking to people who are now at the mercy of the court and deserve a fair trial — who deserve to have that expectation of a fair trial.
The July 21 protests sparked a national discussion, which Dow is seeking to prolong. And in doing so, he’s dragging SLO County’s reputation through the mud. His words and actions have created the impression in people’s minds that if you protest systemic racism, police brutality and discrimination in a predominantly white county, you will be arrested; that if you protest on the street, you’ll be arrested and charged for false imprisonment of motorists that aggressively drive into protesters. If you criticize America and use your First Amendment rights of free expression to do so, you get the boot or worse.
SLO County DA Dan Dow’s conduct is both a dereliction and desecration of duty.