What Was Said
Jake Tapper, CNN anchor: “When you were attorney general, you opposed legislation that would have required your office to investigate fatal shootings involving police officers. Why did you oppose that bill?”
Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California: “So, I did not oppose the bill. I 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. So I did not weigh in.”
This is misleading.
Mr. Tapper was referring to Assembly Bill 86, introduced in the California Legislature in 2015, which would have required the attorney general’s office to appoint a special prosecutor to examine fatal shootings by the police.
Ms. Harris, who formally entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination this week, did not take a public position on the legislation in question. But she had expressed a general disagreement with its aims, and the bill’s sponsor said she declined to support it.
A spokeswoman for her campaign acknowledged on Wednesday that Ms. Harris “expressed that she had concern about taking discretion away from local district attorneys who are held accountable by their constituents.” Ms. Harris made statements to that effect in 2014 and 2016, and could have repeated this rationale during the CNN appearance.
In an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle before the police shooting bill was introduced, Ms. Harris said, “I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys.”
“I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict,” she said, adding, “Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them.”
The bill was introduced in January 2015 by Kevin McCarty, a Democratic state legislator from Sacramento. Mr. McCarty, in an interview on Wednesday, said he reached out to Ms. Harris’s office in 2015 and asked for her to back the legislation. But, he said, “I wasn’t able to convince her department and her at the time to come out in support of the bill.”
The bill was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the N.A.A.C.P., but opposed by law enforcement groups like the California Peace Officers Association and the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
Ms. Harris stayed out of the debate. Mr. McCarty said she might have been in a difficult position.
“For her, it was a balance, I knew, because she was the A.G. and had been a local district attorney prior, and local D.A.s think of this as infringing on local responsibilities,” he said. “I realize in politics that there is a lot of black and white.”
Even though Ms. Harris declined to support his bill, Mr. McCarty said that she eventually recommended further examination of fatal police shootings and that he was pleased that “she came around on the issue on the need for independent investigations.”
When Ms. Harris ran for the Senate in 2016, her position on the bill became the subject of scrutiny again. On matters like the police shooting legislation, “her absence is noticeable,” Holly Mitchell, a California state senator and member of the Legislative Black Caucus, told The Los Angeles Times.
“In an interview, Harris said she didn’t support the measure, Assembly Bill 86, because it would have taken discretion from district attorneys,” The Sacramento Bee reported in May 2016. “Unless they have been shown to abuse their powers, she thinks they should retain them. Harris disputed that her relationship with law enforcement had bearing.”
During a Senate debate in October 2016, former Representative Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, criticized Ms. Harris’s opposition to the bill. Ms. Harris did not respond directly, and instead brought up Ms. Sanchez’ attendance record in Congress and spoke of her office’s efforts on reducing recidivism and increasing transparency.
Ms. Harris also inaccurately stated during the CNN appearance that she did not weigh in legislation. She took positions on a host of other bills, for example, supporting legislation to expand voting rights to former felons, allow inmates more visits and access to rehabilitation programs and improve tracking of forensic evidence, and opposing statewide regulations on police officers wearing body cameras.
Her spokeswoman said on Wednesday that Ms. Harris misheard Mr. Tapper’s question. She added that Ms. Harris did not take positions on ballot initiatives.
The bottom line: While Ms. Harris was technically accurate that she did not take a position the police shooting bill, she had repeatedly expressed disagreement with its aims and declined to support the bill. Her statement that her silence on legislation was a matter of policy — which her staff said was an error — was also not accurate.
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