California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ inauguration address Monday included a typical laundry list of accomplishments and goals. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s how second-term speeches generally go.
As the state’s top law enforcer, though, Harris has steadfastly avoided controversy, most likely so she doesn’t set off any political firestorms before her next run for higher office. So it was heartening that Harris also used her inauguration to deliberately step into the touchiest and most important discussion about race in America we’ve had for decades — the use of deadly force by police during arrests.
Harris said during the speech that she has asked the Division of Law Enforcement for a review of how special agents are trained on bias and use of force and report back to her in 90 days. It is unclear yet whether those reports will be shared with the public; they should be.
Harris also said she will bring law enforcement and community members together to talk about bias and the use of force. The attorney general’s office hadn’t yet worked out the details of how these conversations would take place, where or when, other than they would most likely start this winter. “As law enforcement leaders, we must confront this crisis of confidence,” she said.
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These are good plans, but we think Harris can do better. As the top law enforcer of the country’s largest state and a woman of color, hers is an important voice in the discussion about how race factors into policing. She must do more than facilitate discussion; she should take a public stand and some bold action that would make California an example for the rest of the nation.
It took the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and the protests in New York City over the death of Eric Garner after police used a choke-hold on him during an arrest, to force the nation to come to terms with the fact that people of color are being killed by police at higher rates than Caucasians.
That’s true in California as well. Information from Harris’ office obtained by The Sacramento Bee shows that the numbers of people killed while in the process of being arrested have risen, albeit slowly, over the last decade, even while violent crime was decreasing. It also shows that about two-thirds of those killed during arrest are either Hispanic (42%) or African American (21%).
After the passage of the Death in Custody Reporting Act in Congress in December, Harris’ office confirmed that it would release the information it collects about people killed while being arrested or in police custody. Her office hasn’t said yet when and how that will happen, but any meaningful discussion about the use of force by law enforcement must include those numbers.
We commend Harris for joining the debate on race and policing in America and California, and urge her to make it a priority of her second term.