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A Look At Kamala Harris As A Prosecutor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Before she was a senator, before she was the first woman of color on a major party ticket, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris was San Francisco's district attorney and later California's attorney general. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos have this look at Harris' evolution as a prosecutor.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Ten years ago, Kamala Harris won the narrowest of victories to become California's first female and first Black attorney general. It was a tough race, says Suzy Loftus, a longtime deputy of Harris'. Law enforcement unions had overwhelmingly backed Harris' opponent, LA's Republican DA Steve Cooley.

SUZY LOFTUS: Steve Cooley spent a lot of money trying to suggest that Kamala Harris hated law enforcement.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: To build those relationships with local DAs, sheriffs and police, Loftus points out that the first thing Harris did when she became attorney general was to visit all 58 California counties.

LOFTUS: And it was incredibly effective because I think there's nothing like actually getting to talk to someone, especially who's been so vilified.

LAGOS: Four years later when Harris ran for reelection, police groups largely supported her. But she soon found herself at odds with another key constituency - progressive Democrats.

SHAFER: Deadly police shootings were in the news, and Democrats in the California State Legislature were pushing a bill to require independent investigations of deadly use of force.

LAGOS: In 2015, Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty authored a bill to require the attorney general to take away investigations of police shootings from local DAs, who, he says, have an inherent conflict of interest.

KEVIN MCCARTY: You know, it's like, you know, a high school baseball game and looking out there and seeing the umpire is the uncle of one of the star players. Are you going to trust that umpire to call balls and strikes fairly? The answer's no.

LAGOS: Harris opposed the bill, and it died. She also declined to support another bill requiring police officers to wear body cameras. That didn't sit well with the Black caucus in the legislature. They saw her as on the wrong side of the fight.

SHAFER: Such is the pressure faced by an attorney general, especially one who is a Black female, says LaDoris Cordell. She was an independent police auditor in San Jose.

LADORIS CORDELL: There's this fine line. You're the top cop, but you're also a prosecutor, which is representing the people. And oftentimes, those two things are not compatible.

LAGOS: And, says Cordell, investigations of police shootings are in some ways a no-win situation.

CORDELL: The feeling is that people are passing around this hot potato. When these shootings happen, they're very controversial. The public is very aware. There are protests. And it's sort of like, you know, people just don't really want to handle them.

SHAFER: Kamala Harris says her opposition to the bill wasn't based on fear of catching a hot potato but rather concern about interfering with local prosecutors.

LAGOS: Harris knew firsthand how that felt. In 2004, some San Francisco officials pushed the then-state attorney general to take a murder case away from her office after she declined to seek the death penalty. Loftus, Harris' his longtime deputy, says that experience cut deeply.

LOFTUS: But I think she fundamentally always believed it's a local prosecutor's job to do the right thing and not to punt.

SHAFER: Now that she's in the Senate and on the presidential campaign trail, Harris has been outspoken on policing issues, introducing legislation to ban chokeholds, racial profiling and no-knock warrants.

LAGOS: Debbie Mesloh, a longtime adviser to Harris, says she's not taking those positions because she's changed her mind. The difference is she's now a lawmaker, not a law enforcer.

DEBBIE MESLOH: Having worked with her for so long, these were conversations we would always have. You know, she may have not been having them externally, but this is the Kamala that I have known and seen for 20 years.

SHAFER: Mesloh says that because of who Harris is, a Black, South Asian woman and the daughter of civil rights activists, she was often expected to align herself with liberals pushing for change from the outside.

LAGOS: But for most of her career, she's been a prosecutor, working to change the system from the inside.

For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos.

SHAFER: And I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.