Law and Order
Diana Becton looks to restore Contra Costa County’s scandal-plagued District Attorney’s Office.
Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton.
Photography by Carmichael Images
On September 18, 2017, Diana Becton was sworn in as interim district attorney for Contra Costa County, becoming the first African American and the first woman to serve as the top prosecutor in the county’s 167-year history.
Supervisor John Gioia, who voted for the retired Contra Costa County Superior Court judge to replace DA Mark Peterson, called it “a historic day” at the swearing in.
The small celebration belied the sobering reality of a DA’s office in crisis. Three months earlier, Peterson resigned in disgrace as part of a plea deal after he was charged with 13 felonies for perjury and misuse of $66,000 in campaign funds, which he spent on expensive meals, hotel rooms, car rentals, and clothing.
His departure came after several years of office turmoil—Peterson was accused of political retaliation in a lawsuit by three of his employees in 2012—and a battery of judicial controversies, including his decision not to file charges against 13 active officers involved in a sex scandal that rocked East Bay police departments in 2016. (He ultimately filed a single misdemeanor charge against a retired Oakland police captain.)
Peterson also publicly clashed with officials and members of the community. In 2014, the former DA released an inflammatory statement smearing the county’s public defender, Robin Lipetzky, who had spoken at a Black Lives Matter protest. Among a number of claims, Peterson proclaimed “all lives matter” while alleging that Lipetzky wanted to endanger the public by freeing “accused killers.”
Becton, on the other hand, promises to bring much-needed change to the embattled workplace, starting with a reasoned approach to managing the office’s attorneys and staff.
“I am focusing first on the inside of the office,” says Becton, who studied law at Golden Gate University before her appointment to the Superior Court bench in 1995. “I want to make sure as we move forward, we are moving together as a team. I’ve been doing a lot of listening inside and outside the office.”
Gioia is optimistic she will be successful. “I believe it was beneficial to bring a leader from outside who is respected by lawyers and the community,” he says. “She’s gracious, smart, and works well with people. Plus she’s got a strong legal background.”
That background includes more than two decades serving as a judge. During that time, Becton was named presiding judge of the county’s Superior Court, managing its staff as well as a budget of about $56 million. She also received a Rose Bird Memorial Award for judicial excellence from California Women Lawyers in 2012. Four years later, she was elected the president of the National Association of Women Judges.
Becton’s selection as interim district attorney wasn’t without controversy, however. In August, county supervisors received an anonymous letter revealing that Becton had plagiarized parts of her application, including segments from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; a letter written by U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Rand Paul; and excerpts from Alameda, San Francisco, and Santa Clara Counties’ DA websites. Although she apologized for her lapse in judgment, her detractors were not so quick to forgive.
At a community forum, Contra Costa Sheriff John Livingston asked the county supervisors to disqualify her from consideration. “It’s offensive to the process,” he said at the time, “and it’s offensive to law enforcement.”
But as a sign of Becton’s widespread popularity in the county, Livingston’s remarks were met with hisses and boos from the audience. County supervisors ultimately decided to nominate her for the role in a unanimous vote.
“I don’t think one incident erases a distinguished career,” says Gioia in defending his vote. “I looked at all the candidates, and on balance, I believed her experience tipped the scale in her favor. Like anything, we look at the full array of a person’s background and not just one particular incident.”
Now, Becton must work with one of her fiercest pre-vote critics to solve some of the county’s biggest problems, including persistent issues like gang violence and property crime as well as the East Bay’s growing human trafficking trade. According to the FBI’s 2015 crime data, three of the 12 most dangerous cities
in Northern California are in Contra Costa County: Antioch, Richmond, and San Pablo.
While county crime rates have generally trended downward in recent years, there are some troubling exceptions. Richmond, for example, saw a 13 percent uptick in violent crime from 2014 to 2015, as well as a homicide rate that nearly doubled in the same time period.
But Becton, who will earn an annual salary just north of $250,000, is up to the challenge. She plans to build partnerships between her office—which handles about 3,000 felony cases each year—and law enforcement, the sheriff’s department, and the community to help improve public safety. “The problems that exist in our county are ones we all need to solve together,” she says.
One of her goals is to implement a “smart on crime” approach to ensure “we’re putting the proper resources and emphasis on those who are committing violent crimes, but that we’re also giving better options and outcomes for our youths,” says Becton, who will be up for reelection this June. “With the understanding that a small portion of the community drives the violence in [the region], the District Attorney’s Office is using a focused deterrence strategy to concentrate our efforts on the people and groups that are causing the violence as well as the places where the violent acts are committed.”
As for questions of restoring public trust in the DA’s office, Becton is adamant the office will hold itself to a higher standard than before. That will include training on ethical issues, and she also hopes to appoint a director of ethics to ensure everyone is held accountable, including herself.
“We all have to make sure we are bringing our best selves to the table,” she says.