Cheney plans no purge of DA deputies
District Attorney-elect Jeff Cheney won’t be sworn in until Jan. 10, but he’s taking a running start at his duties.
Cheney said he started meeting with “criminal justice stakeholders” across the 9th Judicial District the day after his election, not wanting to delay those meetings until he officially assumes the role of the district’s head law enforcement officer.
“Jan. 10 will be a day of some ceremony, taking the oath, but I want to get to work immediately,” he said.
In such transitions, there’s always stress in the DA’s office, based on uncertainty over what the change in leadership will mean for the staff — namely, over whose jobs are safe, he said.
So Cheney said one of his first tasks has been to reassure the staff that he’s not looking cull the office of “the old regime.”
“That’s an unacceptable reason to let someone go,” he said in an interview with the Post Independent. “There are victims out there today whose cases are being handled by employees of the office, and those deputies need to feel secure in their jobs so they can represent and advocate on behalf of those victims without worrying about their jobs.”
It’s also hard on people accused of crimes to deal with a rotating prosecutor, he said.
Cheney’s also checking out his deputy district attorneys’ trial schedules and planning to participate in some of them to observe how the deputies work, provide mentorship “and learn, myself, having been out of prosecution for several years.”
Likewise, Cheney said he doesn’t have any designs on terminating any of the DA office’s programs, such as the diversion program for low-level offenders started by outgoing DA Sherry Caloia or an effort to revive the sexual assault nurse examiners program.
“I don’t intend to terminate any effective programs, and I don’t make decisions without data,” he said.
While serving on the River Bridge Regional Center board, Cheney saw the need for sexual assault nurse examiners locally and says he fully intends to support that effort.
“And if the diversion program proves to be beneficial while providing offenders the ability to rehabilitate in an effective way, then I can see maintaining that program.”
Cheney said he also wants to ensure that the criteria for what cases go into diversion makes sense and is based on the “totality of the circumstances, including the history of the offender and input from the victim.”
Cheney also has some specific time lines for some goals, such as establishing a citizen advisory board within the first six months.
“There’s this notion that I’m just going to meet with law enforcement and do what they want me to do. No, I’ve committed from the beginning to identify all the key stakeholders involved and work with, not against those people.”
The DA-elect says he’s “a strong believer in transparency and keeping the public informed about what types of crime are occurring in the community and the prosecution philosophy being applied to those crimes.”
“The rub for a district attorney, though, is there are restraints with regard to what can and can’t be disclosed in the course of [a case]. There are very real dangers of releasing investigative information prematurely.”
He also must a fair trial and must avoid prejudicing the jury pool, he said.
But Cheney also believes some DAs have been too guarded with information about some cases. In an effort to avoid tainting the jury pool, they “assume that simply providing the media with information on a case is tantamount to giving an opinion about the defendant’s guilt or innocence.”
“I think you can provide that information, making sure that you preface it with a presumption of innocence. I’m sure the defense doesn’t like it, but I have a job to be transparent.
“I will do my best to err on the side of transparency, though I’ll always be tugged by those competing interests.”
Though he’s still feeling out how to approach the issue, Cheney said he wants to be proactive on domestic and sexual abuse rather than sticking to a DA’s normal, reactive role. That will mean working closely with organizations like Advocate Safehouse Project and River Bridge and being an accessible public servant who’s visible in the community, he said.
“I see my role as being at the barbecues, going to the community market, which can be hard as a prosecutor because you know that by virtue of doing your job you’re pissing people off.
“Some district attorneys get elected by being politicians. They see this as a gateway to a further political career. I just want to be the district attorney, and I want to do a good job at that,” he said.
“This is my dream job. I love leadership, and I love being a prosecutor. And I hope to create that same passion in the deputies here for an enduring DA’s office.”