Democratic attorney general candidates describe civil rights views

The two Democratic attorney general candidates Missouri voters will see on the Aug. 4 primary ballot are both from St. Louis and both want to have expanded or at least fulfilled roles for the state's top lawyer when it comes to accountability for law enforcement.

The winner of the Democratic primary for attorney general will face current Attorney General Eric Schmitt in November. Schmitt, a Republican, is unopposed in the primary.

Democratic candidate Rich Finneran is from St. Louis, living in the area basically since he was 14 years old, he said.

Finneran went away to the University of North Carolina for college but came back to Washington University in St. Louis for law school. Most of his career so far has been as a federal prosecutor. He's now in private practice, and he teaches at his law school alma mater on the side.

Democratic candidate Elad Gross said he also grew up in the St. Louis area.

Gross started his career in education as a teacher, and he also went to the Washington University School of Law. He's a civil rights attorney and also runs a civic education nonprofit for children and teens.

Finneran said his background in criminal prosecution and experience with consumer protection and consumer fraud qualify him for the role of attorney general, as the focus of the position is to protect the welfare and rights of Missourians.

Gross said the attorney general's role is to hold government accountable to the people, and he added his service as an assistant attorney general - through the end of 2016, according to his campaign's website - gives him the needed experience.

Vehicle stops report and law enforcement accountability

One role of the attorney general's office is to annually collect and release data on traffic stops in Missouri that shows how the rates at which Black and Hispanic drivers are pulled over by law enforcement officers compares to white drivers.

The latest report, released in May, showed Black drivers once again had a wide disparity in stops compared to white drivers, with Black drivers being stopped in 2019 in Missouri at a rate 76 percent greater than expected for their population.

The release of this year's report coincided with nationwide protests and unrest following the death of George Floyd in May. Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis under the knee of a white officer who has since been charged with murder.

Finneran and Gross said it's not enough for the attorney general to just collect more data or merely release Missouri's vehicle stops report; problems need to actually be solved.

Gross would like to start a civil rights division within the attorney general's office, and he would use it to not only make sure anti-discrimination laws are enforced, but also to investigate law enforcement agencies.

He said "officers who are doing the right thing" need to be protected - that is, have whistle-blower protections - and when police departments are not acting appropriately, the attorney general's office could investigate in conjunction with the federal government.

Gross also said the attorney general's office should conduct training for government personnel and law enforcement on what is constitutional and what is not.

Finneran said the attorney general's office should work with departments with unusually high rates of African-Americans being pulled over to improve their procedures, and he said departments that don't prove capable of correcting problems may need to be investigated.

Finneran, like Gross, said relationships with law enforcement should start with collaboration before things become adversarial.

"The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the state of Missouri, and that means that he has a role in setting the tone and the policy across the state for how our criminal justice system should be administered," Finneran said.

LGBTQ discrimination protections

Civil rights matters aside from law enforcement and the criminal justice system have also been in the news recently.

Finneran and Gross said the U.S. Supreme Court recently made the correct decision when the court ruled LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under current federal civil rights law's prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex.

That ruling, however, does not encompass other types of discrimination, such as in housing or public accommodation.

A proposed state legislative solution, the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, has been filed. However, it has not passed for more than two decades.

Finneran said he would use the full power of the attorney general's office to enforce existing anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination on any basis. He said the Legislature does need to pass more protections.

Gross said he does support further nondiscrimination legislation but could use existing laws to implement further protections.

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