‘Top Cop’ Kamala Harris’s Record of Policing the Police

During this summer of tear gas and turmoil, Kamala Harris has not been quiet.

On “The View,” the California senator spoke about “reimagining how we do public safety in America.”

On the Senate floor, she sparred with Rand Paul after the Kentucky Republican blocked a bill to make lynching a federal crime, and she is among the Democrats sponsoring policing legislation that would ban choke holds, racial profiling and no-knock warrants.

On Twitter, she expressed frustration that police officers who killed a Black Kentucky woman, Breonna Taylor, during a drug raid gone wrong, “still have not been charged.”

As a leading contender to be Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate, Ms. Harris has emerged as a strong voice on issues of police misconduct that seem certain to be central to the campaign. Yet in her own, unsuccessful presidential run, she struggled to reconcile her calls for reform with her record on these same issues during a long career in law enforcement.

Indeed, an examination of that record shows how Ms. Harris was far more reticent in another time of ferment a half-decade ago.

Since becoming California’s attorney general in 2011, she had largely avoided intervening in cases involving killings by the police. Protesters in Oakland distributed fliers saying: “Tell California Attorney General Kamala Harris to prosecute killer cops! It’s her job!”

Then, amid the national outrage stoked by the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., came pleas for her to investigate a series of police shootings in San Francisco, where she had previously been district attorney. She did not step in. Except in extraordinary circumstances, she said, it was not her job.

Still, her approach was subtly shifting. During the inaugural address for her second term as attorney general, Ms. Harris said the nation’s police forces faced a “crisis of confidence.” And by the end of her tenure in 2016, she had proposed a modest expansion of her office’s powers to investigate police misconduct, begun reviews of two municipal police departments and backed a Justice Department investigation in San Francisco.

Critics saw her taking baby steps when bold reform was needed — a microcosm of a career in which she developed a reputation for taking cautious, incremental action on criminal justice and, more often than not, yielding to the status quo.

ImageMs. Harris being sworn in as San Francisco’s district attorney in 2004. She has said she became a prosecutor to change the system from the inside.
Ms. Harris being sworn in as San Francisco’s district attorney in 2004. She has said she became a prosecutor to change the system from the inside.Credit…George Nikitin/Associated Press

The daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father who met in Berkeley in the social protest movement of the 1960s, Ms. Harris has said she went into law enforcement to change the system from the inside. Yet as district attorney and then attorney general — and the first Black woman to hold those jobs — she found herself constantly negotiating a middle ground between two powerful forces: the police and the left in one of the most liberal states in America.

Ms. Harris declined to be interviewed for this article. But over the years, she has proudly labeled herself both a “top cop” and a “progressive prosecutor.”

In her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” she wrote that “if we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up,” adding that “virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat.”

Earlier this summer, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she told The New York Times that “it is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”

All of which poses a question: Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed? And is she the woman to lead a police-reform effort from the White House?

Ms. Harris was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2003, defeating her former boss, Terence Hallinan. He was seen as one of the nation’s most progressive district attorneys, unafraid to confront the police, once even indicting the city’s police chief, albeit briefly.

Mr. Hallinan also had a low conviction rate, and Ms. Harris viewed his office as dysfunctional. The police union endorsed her in a runoff.

But in April 2004, barely three months into the job, Ms. Harris found herself at odds with the police after a gang member gunned down an officer named Isaac Espinoza.


The 2004 funeral of Isaac Espinoza, a San Francisco police officer. As district attorney at the time, Ms. Harris did not seek the death penalty for his killer, infuriating officers who had supported her election campaign.Credit…Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

During her campaign, Ms. Harris had opposed the death penalty, in part, as being discriminatory toward people of color, and she did not seek it for Officer Espinoza’s killer. Rank-and-file officers were infuriated. Heather Fong, the new police chief, called it an affront to those who “risk their lives for the sake of the public’s safety.”

Then, at the funeral, Ms. Harris was blindsided when Senator Dianne Feinstein called for the death penalty.

The blowback “totally traumatized her,” said Peter Keane, a former member of the Police Commission, which oversees the city’s Police Department. Throughout her tenure, he said, Ms. Harris had “traditional prosecution, pro-police, instincts. She has always tried not to be a target of the police.”

In 2007, she stayed quiet as police unions opposed legislation granting public access to disciplinary hearings. Gloria Romero, the former State Senate majority leader, who authored the bill, said many San Franciscans publicly supported the move, but not Ms. Harris.

“There could not have been a more profound wall of silence,” said Ms. Romero, a Bernie Sanders supporter who has been critical of the Democratic establishment. “It’s easy to call yourself progressive today, but I mean, come on, it’s easy to reinvent yourself.”

Police use of force had been a contentious issue in San Francisco long before Ms. Harris took office. From 2001 to 2004, The San Francisco Chronicle reported, there were more complaints about use of force in the city than in San Diego, Seattle, Oakland and San Jose combined. Ms. Harris pursued few on-duty cases of force-related misconduct, though that was not unusual at the time.

Most district attorneys prosecuted officers in “only the rare case,” said Louise Renne, who as San Francisco city attorney once employed Ms. Harris. She and other supporters of Ms. Harris said it was unfair to criticize her through the prism of today.

“At that time, Kamala was a very progressive D.A., and some of the criticisms now are a bit of revisionist history,” Ms. Renne said.

Timothy P. Silard, Ms. Harris’s former chief of policy and one of a number of current and former aides who spoke on her behalf, said Ms. Harris experienced hostility in the department from the beginning. He recalled commanders and homicide detectives who refused to speak to her or look her in the eye during meetings in which she demanded they solve more murders in poor neighborhoods. Instead, they addressed white men — her subordinates.

“Did she set out as a professional prosecutor to anger the cops?” he asked. “No. Why would she do that? But did she shy away from doing bold things and important things because it was something the police department or police union didn’t like? Never.”


Ms. Harris, as district attorney, at the African American Cultural Center in San Francisco. She told her staff not to prosecute cases resulting from arrests based on racial profiling, former aides said.Credit…Susan Ragan for The New York Times

From 2002 to 2005, Black people made up less than eight percent of the city’s population but accounted for more than 40 percent of police arrests. Mr. Silard and Paul Henderson, who was Ms. Harris’s chief of administration and now directs a city agency that investigates complaints about the police, said Ms. Harris told her staff not to prosecute arrests based on racial profiling.

“We regularly received calls from officers saying: ‘We can’t believe that you’re discharging this case. This was a good case.’ Well, no, it wasn’t,” Mr. Henderson recalled.

Ms. Harris also created a “re-entry” program called “Back on Track” that aimed to keep young low-level offenders out of jail if they went to school and kept a job.

As police chief of East Palo Alto, Ronald Davis studied the program. “Re-entry was not a prevailing thought in law enforcement,” he said. “She said this is a unique opportunity to reduce recidivism.”

But some say she did not do enough.

“We never thought we had an ally in the district attorney,” said David Campos, who was a supervisor and police commissioner while Ms. Harris was district attorney and is now chairman of the San Francisco Democratic Party. “You have someone saying all the right things now, but when she had the opportunity to do something about police accountability, she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” (Mr. Campos backed Mr. Sanders’s presidential bid.)

In 2010, Ms. Harris’s office was caught up in a scandal over a police crime-lab technician who had been skimming drugs and had a past conviction for domestic violence. A judge found that her office had failed to disclose the information to defense lawyers, as required. The judge also faulted her office for not having procedures for producing exculpatory information on police witnesses.


Ms. Harris’s office was caught up in a 2010 scandal involving the San Francisco police crime lab. She has said she learned of the problems only when they became public.Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Ms. Harris has said that she learned of the crime-lab problems only when they became public, and has acknowledged that her office was too slow in putting a policy in place. Her aides had earlier been working toward a written policy, but Mr. Silard said he believed it had been delayed amid negotiations among several agencies. “The implication that she buried it is ridiculous,” he said, adding that she had initiated the review.

Gary Delagnes, then head of the police union, has a slightly different recollection. “She never pushed hard for it, and we were obviously happy about that,” he said. In the end, hundreds of cases related to the scandal were dismissed, and Ms. Harris’s aides rushed to institute a policy.

Mr. Delagnes, who had a reputation as a strident defender of police officers, said that while many officers never forgave Ms. Harris for the Espinoza decision, he could not recall any other major actions the union strongly opposed. He called her the city’s most “pro-public safety D.A.” of the last 20 years.

He sees her current statements as “an extremely hard left turn.”

“She is Jekyll and Hyde from what she was in 2004,” he said. “That is not the Kamala Harris that I knew.”

Calls to review police misconduct grew after Ms. Harris took office as attorney general in January 2011, in a state with a historically high rate of police shootings.

Anaheim’s mayor at the time, Tom Tait, remembers the crisis confronting his city in July 2012 after an unarmed 25-year-old, Manuel Diaz, was fatally shot in the back by the police. A day later, hundreds of protesters descended on City Hall, forcing its evacuation.

“It was tense,” Mr. Tait said. He called Ms. Harris’s office, asking her to conduct an outside investigation. Ms. Harris phoned him two days later to say she would not intervene, he said.

That same year, she demurred when asked to review the fatal police shooting of Mario Romero, 23, outside his home in Vallejo.

“We went to Kamala Harris’s office in Sacramento three times; we were turned away every time,” said Cyndi Mitchell, Mr. Romero’s sister. “They never said they wouldn’t get involved. It wasn’t really a no, but it wasn’t a yes.”

California law gives the attorney general broad authority over law enforcement matters. But aides to Ms. Harris said that in these and other cases, she hewed to the state Justice Department’s hands-off policy, not interceding in officer-involved shootings unless the local district attorney had a conflict of interest or there was “obvious abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

Brian Nelson, a top aide to Ms. Harris while she was attorney general, said she was reluctant to big-foot district attorneys, having been one herself.

“The idea there was going to be some far-off figure that was going to be more responsive to the community didn’t seem right to her,” Mr. Nelson said.


Demonstrators in Los Angeles in front of a mural of Ezell Ford, who was killed by the police in 2014. As California attorney general, Ms. Harris deferred to the local district attorney, who brought no charges in Mr. Ford’s killing.Credit…Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters

On Aug. 11, 2014, two days after Michael Brown was killed in Missouri, police officers in Los Angeles fatally shot Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness, sparking a wave of demonstrations. Ms. Harris deferred to Jackie Lacey, the city’s first Black district attorney, who ultimately brought no charges.

Ms. Harris began her second term as attorney general the next year by outlining steps to make policing fairer and more transparent, saying “we must acknowledge that too many have felt the sting of injustice.” Still, she hesitated, refusing to endorse AB-86, a bill opposed by police unions that would have required her office to appoint special prosecutors to examine deadly police shootings.

In San Francisco, the police killed 18 people during Ms. Harris’s six years as attorney general. But if there was a single flash point, it was the shooting of 26-year-old Mario Woods in December 2015. Widely circulated cellphone videos showed officers surrounding Mr. Woods — disturbed, strung out on methamphetamines and armed with a steak knife. Five officers fired 46 rounds, hitting him with 21.

A series of rallies followed, and an 18-day hunger strike by five men who came to be known as the Frisco Five. Many believed that Ms. Harris would take action, as her predecessor, Jerry Brown, had done in 2009, when he obtained a court order placing the police department in Maywood under his oversight after widespread misconduct.

In a letter to Ms. Harris, Jeff Adachi, then San Francisco’s public defender, urged her to exert her authority in the Woods case and several other shootings. “An investigation,” he said, “would settle the pressing question of whether the racism evidenced in these incidents is endemic.”

Ultimately, it was the Justice Department that intervened, led by Mr. Davis, the former East Palo Alto police chief, who had become director of the agency’s office of community-oriented policing services. Mr. Davis said his work was bolstered by warnings from Ms. Harris that she would investigate the San Francisco police if necessary.

“We weren’t absent,” said Venus Johnson, a former associate attorney general who advised Ms. Harris on criminal justice issues, adding that there were frequent discussions with San Francisco officials. “We weren’t putting our heads in the sand. We were actively involved.” (The city later adopted some recommendations from a 68-page Justice Department report that found disproportionate use of force against people of color. In 2018, the district attorney said he would not bring criminal charges in the Woods case, though he called the shooting unnecessary and disturbing.)


Ms. Harris, left, faced former Representative Loretta Sanchez, right, in the 2016 Senate race. Ms. Sanchez made police shootings a campaign issue.Credit…Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

In 2016, former Representative Loretta Sanchez, then vying with Ms. Harris for a Senate seat, made a campaign issue of police shootings, particularly her opponent’s refusal to support AB-86. That year, Ms. Harris offered a compromise to the bill that would expand her office’s authority to review police misconduct, but only if sought by district attorneys or police chiefs. California lawmakers are still considering the idea.

And after the election, a month before her Senate swearing-in, Ms. Harris began investigations of both of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department, where officers had been involved in multiple deadly shootings.

“Obviously she recognized Black communities were being policed poorly,” said Mr. Nelson, her former aide. “That was always in the background of all of our conversations.”

In her measured way, Ms. Harris pursued a variety of other criminal justice reforms.

After the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce prison crowding, Mr. Nelson said, Ms. Harris saw a “seminal reform opportunity.” She created a division in her office to help counties devise alternatives to incarceration.

But a few years later, her office would come under fire when it argued against releasing too many eligible parolees, contending that it would reduce the state’s prison labor force. Ms. Harris repudiated the move after it became public, saying she had not been aware.

She also began requiring body cameras at the California Department of Justice, the first state agency to adopt them. But she did not support legislation mandating them for the police, warning against “one-size-fits-all” regulation. The bill failed.

One of her most lauded initiatives was OpenJustice, a database that provided public access to crime statistics collected by the state. That included data about the use of force, and won the support of some police groups as well as activists.

“That was very useful to us,” said Melina Abdullah, an African studies professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and co-founder of the Los Angeles branch of Black Lives Matter. “As a Black woman who also went to Howard University, who is also from Oakland, she gives me a symbolic sense of pride.”

But overall, she had mixed feelings about Ms. Harris, saying that her policies were “not transformative enough” and that “she could have played a much stronger role.”

Chivona Newsome, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter in New York City, also has misgivings.


Ms. Harris in June at a news conference on police reform and equal justice legislation on Capitol Hill. A co-founder of Black Lives Matter said that “that ‘top cop’ thing has just stuck.”Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

“I’m not 100 percent sold, but we have to look at evolution,” she said, adding that she was encouraged after Ms. Harris expressed support for redirecting some police funding. But, she said, “That ‘top cop’ thing has just stuck — she built such a strong brand on it as an A.G., as the D.A. — and it’s hard for people to erase that in their memories.”

Ms. Harris is not alone in toiling inside the system. In Los Angeles, Ms. Lacey has been criticized by Black Lives Matter activists, who see her as too pro-police. Several of them, including Dr. Abdullah, protested on her porch earlier this year, prompting her husband to brandish a gun.

“You are very much aware that your fellow African-Americans expect a lot from you,” Ms. Lacey said in an interview. “I know Senator Harris and I both want to do the absolute best job we can in these roles. But I do think there’s a different yardstick for us.”

She and Ms. Harris have known each other for years. But as she tacks left, Ms. Harris has endorsed Ms. Lacey’s opponent in her re-election bid, George Gascón. (Mr. Gascon succeeded Ms. Harris as San Francisco district attorney but moved south to challenge Ms. Lacey.) “They probably are aligned in many of their progressive values,” Ms. Lacey said. “I don’t take it personally.”

Ms. Harris, for her part, is trying to advance some of the protest movement’s aims from the Senate.

“The decision I made was, ‘I’m going to try and go inside the system, where I don’t have to ask permission to change what needs to be changed,’” she said earlier this year, adding that protesters had helped bring pressure from the outside.

As for her own career, she said, “I know we were able to make a change, but it certainly was not enough.”