GOP candidate for Attorney General has a surprising view on police oversight

Expressing a view more typically held by liberal Democrats, the Republican challenging Democrat Xavier Becerra for attorney general said he thinks police shootings should be investigated by the state, rather than local prosecutors.

“It takes the politics out of it,” GOP candidate Steven Bailey said in an interview this week with CALmatters.

His position reflects a belief common among progressive advocates for criminal justice reform: that the relationship between local police and prosecutors is too cozy, and that an outside authority should instead decide whether a police shooting is justified.

Steven Bailey

Bailey said such investigations should be shifted to the Attorney General’s office, which “can take the 29,000 foot view of the issue, look at the evidence and make intelligent decisions on whether there has been a violation of the law, whether the use of force was inappropriate.”

It’s an idea progressive Democrats have pushed in the Legislature three times in the last few years. But lawmakers ultimately rejected the proposals under pressure from police unions, which opposed them.

On another police accountability proposal, Bailey sided with law enforcement in saying he does not think the state should change the legal standard for justifying use of force by police. A shooting is legally justified if police can prove that a “reasonable” officer in the same situation would do the same thing. Over time, this standard has contributed to very few police being convicted when they kill civilians.

Following the high-profile death earlier this year of Stephon Clark, an un-armed man killed by Sacramento police, Democratic Assembly members Kevin McCarty of Sacramento and Shirley Weber of San Diego introduced a bill to change the legal standard. Their bill intended to make it harder to justify killings by saying police could only use deadly force when it was “necessary” to prevent injury or death. Police lobbied heavily against the bill and it stalled in the Legislature.

Becerra, the incumbent Democrat, was more cautious in discussing proposals to improve police oversight. He said he wants to see the results of reviews his office is conducting of the procedures in the Sacramento and San Francisco police departments before taking a position on whether the “reasonable” standard should be changed.

“I don’t give yes or no when I don’t have all the information I need in front of me,” Becerra said.

He has been similarly circumspect about whether he thinks his office should be tasked with investigating police shootings. When the idea was introduced in a bill in 2017, Becerra withheld his support until the legislation was watered down to require just a study. When a new version of the bill was floated this year, Becerra was noncommittal, saying the desired transparency “can be accomplished in any number of ways.” Becerra’s agency is now overseeing the Sacramento police department’s investigation of the Clark shooting, but is not conducting its own separate investigation.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Photo by Steve Yeater for CALmatters

In an interview this week, Becerra said he doesn’t want too many changes heaped onto police departments at the same time. A new law requires police to collect data showing the ethnicities of the people they stop. And Gov. Jerry Brown is considering bills that would make public police body-cam footage and some investigations of police misconduct.

“It’s important to give law enforcement the chance to ingest and execute these new measures,” Becerra said. “Then we can assess where we go.”

Law enforcement groups are split between the two candidates. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association have endorsed Becerra, while Bailey is endorsed by the California Peace Officers Association and the unions representing Los Angeles police officers and sheriffs deputies.

Becerra, who was appointed attorney general in 2016 when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate, is widely favored to win. He is an experienced politician who enjoys the benefits of incumbency, and has more than $1.1 million in his campaign account. Bailey is a retired judge who is facing accusations of professional misconduct by the Commission on Judicial Performance. He has just $14,100 in his campaign account.

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