Jim Cooper steered his SUV past a desolate stretch of vacant buildings in south Sacramento on a recent weekday, reminiscing about his days as an undercover sheriff’s deputy, when he set up drug deals and sought to disrupt gangs.
“I did a great job buying drugs,” said Cooper, now a Democratic assemblyman from Elk Grove. “I busted my butt to put as many people in jail as I could.”
This was once Cooper’s office: neighborhoods pockmarked by crime and endemic poverty – “problem areas for 40, 50 years,” Cooper said.
The work nurtured his views on how crime scars communities and stifles opportunities to escape, and now shapes his actions as one of two ex-cops in the Legislature.
When fellow Legislative Black Caucus members sought this year to pass bills responding to a year of police killings, Cooper aligned himself with law enforcement at every turn. As the Black Lives Matter movement intensified, he opposed measures to establish rules for police-worn body cameras, change how California prosecutes police shootings and collect data on racial profiling.
“It’s been very disheartening to me that he’s so pro law-enforcement,” said Christi Ketchum, an Elk Grove activist with organizations like Californians for Safety and Justice who pointed to Cooper’s votes and his criticism of Proposition 47, which downgraded some crimes to misdemeanors. “The criminalization of poor people and people of color when it comes to law enforcement ... it’s just as important what’s happening here as it is all over the country.”
Relics from his formative years now decorate Cooper’s Capitol office. A frame displays the badges he accumulated. A photo depicts a grinning younger Cooper lying in a pile of marijuana plants with a machete in one hand and a handgun in the other. A folder holds newspaper clippings about drug busts and a swastika-emblazoned business card for the United Southern Skins. With discernible pride, he shows off a printout of lyrics from Sacramento rapper C-Bo that mention “gunnin’ down Cooper.”
He recalls being seen as part of an “an occupying army” in communities that offered little positive reinforcement for the young.
“We can do all these laws, we can do body cameras and accountability, but until we change and invest in these areas, nothing will change,” Cooper said. “We talk about everything else but that.”
To me, all lives matter. I’ve been to too many killings over my career.
Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove
To groups representing law enforcement, Cooper represents a voice of reason and a safeguard against overreaching policies promoted by politicians out of touch with the realities of combating crime.
“He’s been invaluable to us,” said Amador County Sheriff Martin Ryan, who leads the California State Sheriffs Association. “A lot of things that came out of Ferguson have translated into legislation proposals out of Sacramento, and I think having Jim there, for us at least, has been very reassuring.”
While groups representing police chiefs, sheriffs and other law enforcement do not wield the big-money clout of other interest groups, they command respect and deference among legislators. Other members seek Cooper’s counsel to understand law enforcement’s stance.
“Having someone like Assemblyman Cooper where I can turn to him and say, how is this going to affect law enforcement’s ability to catch criminals? Obviously that factors in,” said Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, D-Los Angeles.
No stranger to controversy, Cooper ran the Sacramento County Jail when a spate of inmate suicides drew allegations of negligence. He served as as sheriff’s spokesman as the department grappled with lawsuits alleging inmate abuse. His Elk Grove City Council votes on the city’s law enforcement contract with Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, where Cooper still worked, launched a conflict-of-interest probe that led a grand jury to call his behavior “reprehensible” and to conclude that he acted in an “unprofessional, abusive and inappropriate” manner toward colleagues. (Cooper called those conclusions false and politically motivated.)
He hasn’t shied away from unpopular moves at the Capitol. He was the only member of the Legislative Black Caucus not to vote for a bill, since signed into law, prohibiting the use of grand juries in deciding whether to indict police officers who have killed suspects. Cooper said such grand juries work, and he warned against hamstringing prosecutors.
“There have been bad shootings. Some of the things we saw law enforcement do were wrong, and they need to be held accountable for it,” Cooper said. But if police officers feel unable to do their jobs, he said, “in the end, who suffers? It’s the kids that suffer, ultimately. They can’t go out and play in front of their own apartment because guys are standing there stealing drugs or involved in gang activity.”
Police accountability advocates allied with the Black Lives Matter movement rallied behind a bill requiring officers to collect and submit more data on police stops in an effort to suss out racial profiling. When the bill came up on the Assembly floor, black caucus members rose in succession to urge “aye” votes. “The world is looking at California,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego – but Cooper did not vote for the bill, which scraped by with the minimum 41 votes.
“You’re out in the neighborhoods, you’re stopping folks, I think it will be disproportionate – absolutely,” Cooper said in a later interview. “But to me, all lives matter. I’ve been to too many killings over my career. You’re looking at bad guys and sizing them up: That’s a good person to stop; that guy doesn’t belong here.”
Members of both parties supported legislation requiring search warrants for emails and other electronic communications. Major law enforcement groups had adopted neutral stances on the bill.
But Cooper opposed it. He had led a tech-crimes task force for the Sheriff’s Department, and during the Assembly debate, he held up a sheaf of paper he called an Internet guide to “how to practice child love.” He warned of damaging child pornography investigations and painted a brutal picture of the types of predation he said the bill would make it harder to prosecute: “bestiality, bondage, kids screaming.”
“Let’s put kids’ rights first,” Cooper said, “not Internet privacy.”
Even on a package to regulate medical cannabis that enjoyed the backing of the California Police Chiefs Association, which worked to negotiate a deal after years of opposing pot regulation, Cooper dissented. He gave an Assembly floor speech invoking dispensaries near schools, the perils of marijuana-infused chewing gum and “hedge fund folks” making billions off of cannabis.
“We’re bringing order,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a former California Highway Patrol officer who helped carry the bills. “I find (Cooper’s) position to be frustrating because I don’t understand it.”
Cooper said his days on the street ingrained in him a guiding belief in the destructive power of drugs. He personally eschews coffee, while calling the popularity of espresso double-shots and energy drinks evidence that “we are a drug-crazed society.”
Cooper and cops were aligned on a bill limiting asset forfeiture, a practice in which peace officers can confiscate property without a conviction if they suspect a connection to criminality. The measure enjoyed a relatively smooth path to the Assembly floor but collapsed badly there, with Cooper playing a prominent role in conveying law enforcement’s criticisms about trimmed budgets and impeded investigations.
“He was able to speak from a level of firsthand knowledge that, quite frankly, the proponents of the bill couldn’t match,” said John Lovell, who lobbied against the bill for various law enforcement groups. “I think that really helped to turn the tide on that bill.”
Bill backers argued the measure would protect a bedrock constitutional guarantee of due process. Cooper called that argument naive.
“You have some folks that see good in everybody,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of evil people in the world.”
Education: Master’s degree, organizational leadership, St. Mary’s College, 2004; BA business management, University of Phoenix, 2002.
Experience: Elk Grove City Council, 2000-2014; commander, Sacramento County Court Security Division, 2012-14; commander, High Tech Crimes Task Force, 2008-11; spokesman, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, 2006-09; commander, downtown Sacramento jail, 2001-2003; undercover detective, 1988-1996.
Committees: Committees: Chair, Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security; member, Assembly Committee on Budget, Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization, Assembly Committee on Insurance, Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection.