When California Attorney General Kamala Harris was sworn in for her second term on Monday, she announced plans to address excessive use of force and continue the dialogue about policing tactics. Harris hopes to ease the tension between police officers and the general public, as other attorney generals stay silent on the issue of police conduct.
During her inaugural speech, Harris outlined her plan to investigate how the state’s Department of Justice conducts training on bias and use of force. Specifically, the state’s Division of Law Enforcement has been asked to produce a thorough report of special agent training.
The attorney general also committed to talking with law enforcement and the communities they serve, in order to address the tensions between them. “The work to build trust with the communities we are sworn to protect never ends. Trust is a reciprocal relationship. We must acknowledge that too many have felt the sting of injustice,” she said. “As a career prosecutor, I have always known one central truth: the public and law enforcement need each other to keep our communities safe.”
In light of numerous police killings of unarmed civilians last year, which disproportionately impacted mentally ill persons and people of color, Harris’ remarks seem hopeful. However, tied in with national demands for a reduced use of force are calls for independent prosecutors to review incidents of police brutality, which Harris does not endorse.
“I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys,” she expressed last month. “I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict. … Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them.”
Most officers are not charged, let alone convicted in excessive force cases, and prosecutors have a far-reaching hand in those trials. Many believe there are conflicts of interest when local prosecutors, like Robert McCulloch in St. Louis who oversaw the grand jury review of Darren Wilson, are involved in the investigation of officers they work with on a daily basis and lean on for re-election.
So if the way indictments and prosecutions are conducted is not reformed, a commitment to addressing excessive force cases may not actually lead to the reforms people want. Still, it remains to be seen if and how Harris will address the deaths of Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego, who were killed by police in Los Angeles. Local police say they are still investigating the cases in the face of community protest. And the autopsy in Ford’s case dubs it a homicide. People have petitioned the attorney general to either appoint a special prosecutor to investigate their cases or press charges herself.