Kamala Harris’ police reforms should be only the start

Attorney General Kamala Harris vowed in January to address the “crisis of confidence” in law enforcement.
Attorney General Kamala Harris vowed in January to address the “crisis of confidence” in law enforcement. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Every week seems to add urgency to the push to restore trust in law enforcement. Last week, California Attorney General Kamala Harris suggested a place to start.

Delivering on a promise made in January at her inauguration, Harris announced a package of reforms, mostly aimed at her own department. Among other moves, she launched a first-ever policy to prohibit racial, ethnic and other bias among her officers and to train them so that they can more effectively work around it.

She also announced she would outfit some special agents with body cameras, something many local departments are exploring. And she formalized a working group of local law enforcement officials to share the best practices on improving public trust.

All good, and the attorney general gets points for leading by example. But Harris could and should have been bolder.

This “crisis of confidence,” as she termed it in January, arises from the longstanding fear, hardened into a cynical belief in some circles, that when the victim of an officer-involved shooting is black, brown or mentally ill, the involved officer is far less likely to be punished.

Though most law enforcement officers are sincere in their desire to do right in often-dangerous situations, recent incidents like those in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and North Charleston, S.C. – and Los Angeles’ Skid Row and San Bernardino and Lodi, and so on – feed the concern that most officers will shoot to kill when the suspect is a person of color or in the throes of a breakdown.

In fact, the fear goes, officers can get away unscathed if the victim is sufficiently powerless, since the district attorneys who oversee law enforcement misconduct are colleagues of cops and deputies who have to work with them daily and need their backing politically.

Harris knows this fear. She also knows she could strike a real blow against it if her department were to start independently investigating, or at least reviewing, civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement, rather than leaving oversight to the district attorneys except in the most egregious cases.

But her sole nod to this possibility was a limp offer of investigative help to local agencies that lack resources and training or that have internal conflicts of interest. Some law enforcement groups don’t even acknowledge that this conflict can exist, so offering to help fix it is a step in the right direction. But it’s not enough.

Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty has proposed mandating that the attorney general’s office take over these kinds of investigations, or at least automatically review them. His Assembly Bill 86 comes before its first committee Tuesday. The California Peace Officers’ Association came out against it even before the legislation had details.

State lawmakers should give it strong consideration and resist the pressure to quash it before the idea gets a real airing. Harris is a former DA and has said she is philosophically disinclined to take away the discretion of local elected officials. Like most in law enforcement, she insists the status quo generally works, aside from some bad public relations and the need for a little updating. Plus, she is running for the U.S. Senate and has to hold onto the law enforcement groups who have endorsed her.

But civil libertarians say the only truly impartial way to review these potential criminal cases against local law enforcers is to create a special prosecutor – perhaps, many suggest, within the state attorney general’s office.

Harris is correct in seeing that California could lead in restoring public trust in law enforcement and that the state’s top prosecutor should head the conversation. Her reforms have broken the ice, but the Legislature should pick up where she is leaving off, and do more.