— Exchange during a CNN town hall event in Des Moines, Jan. 28, 2019
Before she was a senator, Harris was the state attorney general of California. Before that, she was the San Francisco district attorney and a prosecutor in Alameda County.
Now Harris is running for president, and a big question out of the gate is: Was she a good cop or a bad cop?
Harris was attorney general, the top law enforcement officer in the state, from 2011 to 2017. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged during this time, just as police shootings of unarmed African Americans across the country, and disproportionate use of force against minorities, became major issues receiving widespread coverage.
At a town hall event that drew nearly 2 million viewers, CNN host Jake Tapper asked why Harris had opposed a bill to ensure independent investigations when police use fatal force. Several states say such investigations are a best practice, and a task force established by President Barack Obama in 2015 recommended policies that “mandate the use of external and independent prosecutors in cases of police use of force resulting in death, officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, or in-custody deaths.”
In response, Harris told Tapper that she never took a position on any bill or ballot initiative because of her duties as attorney general. But that is not accurate. She took positions on a range of pending bills and at least one proposed ballot initiative, according to her archived news releases. (We found more than a dozen examples.)
Harris’s staff told The Fact Checker that she misheard Tapper’s question and misspoke in response. Let’s examine this.
When Harris was attorney general, California lawmakers debated a bill that would have required an independent investigation after any use of fatal force by police. Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, introduced the bill in January 2015 and said in an interview that he asked Harris to support it at the time.
The concern, McCarty said, is that district attorneys handle these investigations, and they work closely with the same local police officers who could come under scrutiny. “There are flaws and perceived conflicts of interest,” McCarty said. After amendments, his 2015 bill would have required the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor in cases when police use of force results in death.
Harris did not take a position on the bill, which eventually expired in the legislature. Some law enforcement groups opposed to it were supporters of Harris’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times.
At the CNN town hall, Tapper asked specifically about “legislation that would have required your office to investigate fatal shootings involving police officers.” He was referring to McCarty’s bill.
Harris said she did not take a position because she “had a process when I was attorney general of not weighing in on bills and initiatives because, as attorney general, I had a responsibility for writing the title and summary.”
Asked for comment, Harris spokeswoman Lily Adams said the senator misheard Tapper’s question.
In fact, Harris fairly often issued news releases announcing her support for different bills. She publicly opposed and won a court battle to block a gruesome ballot initiative calling for the killing of gay people.
Harris’s responsibility to write a “title and summary” applied only for ballot initiatives that had been cleared for an election, an adviser said, not legislation or proposed initiatives like the one targeting gay people. The adviser wrote in an email that Harris did not take a position on McCarty’s bill because “she was concerned about taking away authority from locally elected DAs (of which she is a former one) who are held accountable by their constituents.”
That answer is consistent with Harris’s comments at the time.
“I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys,” Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2014. “I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict. ... Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them.”
McCarty said that’s how he remembers it, as well. (He endorsed Harris for the U.S. Senate despite her decision not to support his bill.)
“The next year ... she actually came out with a recommendation on this,” McCarty said. He described it as three teams covering California “that would be able to step in and assist with independent investigations.” McCarty said that he adopted the recommendation, is still working on the bill and hopes to get it passed but that a draft did not go through last year “for policy and money reasons.” He mentioned 40 to 50 new positions split among the three teams and a $10 million budget. As for Harris, he said, “She did come around, and I was very pleased.”
“I think she had to walk a fine line being the state’s top cop and the practical purposes of such a position, and the fact that she had experience coming up as a DA,” he said. In September 2016, Harris’s office said she had “advocated to the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate president pro tem for the necessary resources to create new teams within the attorney general’s office to conduct criminal investigations of officer-involved shootings.”
The California attorney general has the power to take over local law enforcement matters, but Harris appears not to have used these powers to intervene in police-involved shooting cases.
Five San Francisco officers fired a total 26 rounds at Mario Woods, 26, in December 2015, killing him. Woods, who was African American, was holding a knife and did not drop it when told to do so. Harris at the time said she trusted the San Francisco district attorney to investigate the matter. That office declined to seek charges against the police officers, finding that they had had a reasonable safety concern.
The Los Angeles district attorney reached the same result after investigating two police officers who shot and killed a mentally ill black man, Ezell Ford, in 2014. Harris also did not intervene in that case or others.
Xavier Becerra, a Democrat who succeeded Harris as California attorney general, took over the investigation of the police shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man who was unarmed when two officers fired 20 rounds and killed him in Sacramento. On Jan. 29, Becerra issued a 96-page report with 49 recommendations for changes at the Sacramento Police Department.
It is easier to overhaul police-involved shooting investigations in smaller states such as Connecticut or Wisconsin, which have laws that provide for independent probes, McCarty said. In California, the most populated state, 157 people died during encounters with police in 2016, according to a report Becerra issued in 2017. Police fatally shot 115 people in California last year, according to The Washington Post’s database of police shootings in the United States, and 162 in 2017.
Harris has drawn criticism, such as in an op-ed in the New York Times, as being too tough a law enforcement officer. Her campaign noted that she opposes the death penalty and implemented a first-of-its-kind training program on implicit bias. She required her officers at the California Department of Justice to wear body cameras. Among other initiatives mentioned by the campaign, Harris also created a prisoner reentry and diversion program for nonviolent drug offenders as the San Francisco district attorney and continued it as attorney general.
Harris won praise from criminal justice reform advocates for creating an online database of police use of force, including fatal shootings.
The Pinocchio Test
Regular readers know we generally do not award Pinocchios when a politician admits a mistake, as Harris has in this case. We can’t explain how she got so confused by Tapper’s short and specific question, but errors can occur in live events. Still, the real answer to his question, about trusting district attorneys to handle investigations into fatal shootings, might have given many viewers watching the town hall a more jaded view of her candidacy.
In the end Harris conceded the error when contacted by The Fact Checker, and the Democratic sponsor of the California bill in question says she later came around to his view. We will withhold Pinocchios in this case but invite readers to submit their own ratings in the poll below.
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