In summary

California’s Constitution gives the attorney general power to supervise district attorneys and to investigate cops who act with impunity.

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By Jim Gonzalez, Special to CalMatters

Jim Gonzalez is a public policy consultant and strategist, and a former San Francisco supervisor,

When it comes to policing the police, state law invests the California attorney general with powers that can only be described as awesome.

Now, in the wake of the successful Minnesota prosecution of the cop who murdered George Floyd last year, it is time for California’s AG to use his authority to extinguish the same kind of racist atrocities in this state. 

Our new attorney general, Rob Bonta, sounded in his recent confirmation hearings like he is up to the task, ready to implement new laws to check abusive cops.

The fact is, he already has plenty of power at his disposal.

California’s Constitution gives him “direct supervision over every district attorney and sheriff” in “all matters pertaining to the duties of their respective offices.” These “matters” must include investigations of cops who act with impunity.  The attorney general’s authority also positions him to break up the politically cozy relationships between local prosecutors and police unions that might sabotage aggressive pursuits of credible allegations of police abuse. 

Additionally, our government code gives Bonta the power to “take full charge of any investigation or prosecution” within Superior Court jurisdiction – with no disclaimer that says “except in cases where the accused wears a badge.”

Bonta needs to put out an information bulletin to let every cop in the state know that the days of police abuse are over. 

I know firsthand how impenetrable the blue wall of silence can be.

As a San Francisco city supervisor, I asked the SFPD brass for the personnel records of the officer, with a hidden past of excessive force complaints, who nearly killed United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta during a peaceful 1988 protest. Huerta, a grandmother, suffered several broken ribs and her spleen was obliterated from full-force baton strikes. The department denied my records request on the officer and even refused to release the police report on the case that went unprosecuted. 

We know what state attorney generals can do to achieve justice in police abuse cases. In the George Floyd killing, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took the case away from local prosecutors and gained the murder conviction against Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

There’s nothing stopping Bonta from exercising the same righteous judgement and muscle here. 

We have every confidence that Bonta meant it when he said that public trust in the police depends on holding them accountable for officer wrongdoing. 

Toward that end, the Legislature last year passed Assembly Bill 1506 by Sacramento Assemblymember Kevin McCarty to create a new AG police deadly-force investigation division. It was gratifying to hear Bonta prioritize the need to jumpstart that unit.     

We were further heartened by Bonta’s announcement Thursday that his office would independently review last year’s fatal shooting of Sean Monterrosa by the Vallejo Police Department – after Solano County’s elected district attorney backed away from the case.  

Unfortunately, the Legislature watered down the division’s AB 1506 authority before it investigated a single case. The enabling legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom only requires that the unit investigate fatal officer-involved shootings of unarmed civilians. Before the amendment, the bill covered all police use of force cases where civilians died. 

Ironically, in its amended form, the unit would not have rolled out on George Floyd’s death. Nor will it be required to investigate the April 19 death of Mario Arenales Gonzalez, who stopped breathing during a police encounter in Alameda.

Under AB 1506, Attorney General Bonta will only be required to investigate the 40 or so fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians that happen every year on average in California. Under his already-authorized powers, he will still be allowed to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute all officer-involved killings, period. 

Of course, California is in dire need of other police reforms – mainly, the decertification of bad cops. But when it comes to police accountability, the brave exercising of the attorney general’s power stands as the best path for California citizens to expect results. 

As the state’s top cop, Bonta needs to put all police jurisdictions on notice that he will vigorously prosecute anyone with a badge who dares act as judge, jury and executioner. 

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