When longtime prosecutor Mark Peterson was elected district attorney in Contra Costa County in 2010, he took over a deeply divided office that had been plagued by cronyism, had a reputation for employing some of the state's most arrogant attorneys, and was dogged by a lingering image problem related to sordid and highly publicized rape allegations involving two prosecutors. In the two years hence, Peterson has made progress in cleaning up the troubled office, and has begun to regain the public's trust. But it hasn't been easy. Three of his deputies, all of who were aligned with the office's former regime, have sued him, and defense attorneys remain skeptical as to whether will be able to improve his prosecutors' boorish behavior in court.
During the 2010 election campaign, Peterson, a conservative Republican who has built a reputation over the years for being a straight shooter, promised to root out corruption and improve transparency in the DA's Office. He then defeated an entrenched regime that had controlled the office for decades. Traditionally, the CoCo County DA was widely viewed as being the most powerful person in the county, and succession in the office was carefully controlled by a cadre of attorneys, judges, and law enforcement officials who endorsed whoever the outgoing DA chose to succeed him.
That system had bred a centralized power structure, characterized by a top-down management style and a dog-eat-dog culture. And Peterson's victory signaled that county voters were tired of a series of DA administrations that behaved as though they had been anointed rather than elected.
Still, the odds were stacked against Peterson winning the election. Numerous prosecutors had challenged the old boys' network over the years, and all of them were defeated by a political machine fueled by endorsements from law enforcement agencies and large campaign contributions from the county's five oil refineries. In addition, former and current deputy district attorneys say the office's prosecutors were either bullied into supporting the old regime or they backed it because the continuity of succession reasonably assured them the good will they had cultivated with management would be honored by the chosen heir. In the 2010 election, that chosen heir was Dan O'Malley, a criminal defense attorney and former judge who also happened to be the son of a former Contra Costa County DA.
However, by 2010, the public had grown distrustful of the office, especially in the wake of the rape case involving then-prosecutors Michael Gressett and Holly Harpham (see "A Troubled Rape Case," 10/28/09). O'Malley and the DA's top administrators had been caught up in that scandal, and voters decided that it was time for a change in the office. Peterson won 57 percent of the vote despite a smear campaign by some of his supervisors in the DA's office, having little support from his fellow prosecutors, unfriendly news coverage, and only one law enforcement endorsement, which came from police officers in Concord, where Peterson lives and had served as a city councilman. "It was a little embarrassing when the voter information pamphlet came out and Dan O'Malley had a list of law enforcement endorsements that barely fit on the page and there was one endorsement on the top of my page and a whole lot of white space below it," Peterson said in a recent interview.
Since taking command, Peterson has learned that changing an office culture that was forged over decades is harder than it looks. He still faces pockets of deep resistance from those who maintain ties to the old regime, and the office's public image has not improved as rapidly as he had hoped.
Nonetheless, Peterson has earned strong reviews from East Bay liberals, community activists, and members of the county's criminal justice system — especially for his work in helping Richmond, a city that embraced progressive crime prevention strategies in recent years and has experienced one of the most significant drops in crime in Northern California.
Peterson also is confident that, in the remainder of his four-year term, he will continue to make positive changes and believes that his emphasis on inclusion and fairness in the office will help improve the public's perception of it. "There's more transparency and collaboration in the office now, and I seek a lot of input before making a decision," Peterson said. "Of course, not everybody is happy once the decision is made, but a lot more people are involved and that's a big change from the past."
Before taking over as Contra Costa County's top prosecutor, Mark Peterson served on the Concord City Council for fifteen years. He said his time on the council gave him a broader perspective on the complexities of government and law enforcement. He is a devout Christian and pro-death penalty Republican, but he said those designations don't define him as a district attorney and that conservatism and progressivism are not necessarily at odds. Despite having a reputation as a law-and-order prosecutor, Peterson has thus far been one of the most progressive district attorneys that the county has had in decades. "After serving on the Concord City Council for fifteen years, I learned that government is a very complex thing," said Peterson, who lives in Concord with his wife and three kids. "And after working in the District Attorney's Office for 27 years, I've learned that locking somebody up and throwing away the key does not work."
In an effort to enhance crime prevention through public services, Peterson has put an emphasis on improving communication both in his office and with the public. He has been scheduling meetings with school officials and with the county's nineteen city councils, and has been speaking out at council meetings throughout the county. He also meets regularly with police chiefs to strengthen his office's relationships with law enforcement agencies.