California Sen. Kamala Harris addressed the problem of fatal police shootings of black men and women at a town hall in Sacramento on Thursday, saying that Stephon Clark, who was shot and killed by police last month, shouldn’t have lost his life.
Clark was unarmed, standing in his own backyard, and holding a cell phone when he was shot to death on March 18. The incident has reignited national discussions about race and police use of force, and spurred protests in Sacramento and other cities.
“There is no question that that was a life that should not have been lost,” Harris, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, told a crowd of several hundred gathered at a local church. “That is a life that should not have been ended.”
An independent autopsy found that police shot at Clark 20 times after they mistook his cellphone for a weapon. He was hit eight times, mostly in his back. Benjamin Crump, the lawyer representing Clark’s family, has said that the autopsy “contradicts the police narrative that we’ve been told.” Clark’s shooting is still being investigated by the Sacramento Police Department.
Harris has repeatedly spoken out about criminal justice issues, a topic she heavily focused on in her first term as a senator. Elected in 2016, Harris is only the second black woman to serve in the Senate. While her time on the national political stage has been brief, Harris’ name has been featured prominently on lists of potential presidential candidates.
Her comments also stand in stark contrast with the response of US President Donald Trump, who has yet to say anything about Clark’s death. When asked about the president’s stance at a March 28 press conference, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the shooting a “local matter.”
The incident follows several high-profile police shootings of black men in recent years. According to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, some 294 people have been shot and killed by police in 2018. 60 of those people were identified as black in news reports. And research has shown that there are significant and persistent racial disparities in police use of force.
Harris previously faced criticism over her handling of police shootings
Harris served as California’s attorney general from January 2011 to the beginning of 2017, and has focused heavily on criminal justice and policing issues since she was first elected to the Senate in 2016.
However, Harris did face criticism while leading the California Justice Department, with some — many of whom supported her political campaign — arguing that she should do more to increase police accountability and independently investigate officer-involved shootings. Some of her biggest critics were black lawmakers, who were hoping she would enact stricter laws on police oversight.
In 2015, Harris did not back legislation that would have required her office to independently investigate fatal police shootings, arguing that local district attorneys were better equipped to handle the matter. Two years later, Sacramento groups angered by Clark’s death have repeatedly protested outside the office of local district attorney Anne Marie Schubert, demanding that the officers involved in the Clark shooting be charged. The officers currently remain on leave while the investigation continues.
Stephon Clark’s death is expected to be a major factor in the upcoming Sacramento district attorney election.
At Thursday’s Sacramento town hall, which was attended by Clark’s grandmother, Harris seemed to take a strong stance. She used her time at the church to discuss Clark’s shooting and connect it to other issues affecting black communities. “When I look at all the issues that have been presented, by what happened to this young man, I am looking at issues that have been challenging our country for decades upon decades upon decades,” she said.
Harris also spoke about the need for police officers to deal with implicit biases when interacting with communities of color, noting that while she served as attorney general, she had the California Department of Justice review its own training on bias and use of force.
That review led to the creation of a statewide training program aimed at reducing the effects of implicit bias on law enforcement. On Thursday, Harris said that some 2,000 officers in the state have received the training.
The senator also stressed that making officers aware of their biases was crucial. “When your bias is coupled with the fact that you carry a gun, it is something that has to be a priority for us,” she said.
After the event, when Harris was asked if she thought law enforcement held too much political influence, the Los Angeles Times reported that she did not respond directly, but told reporters “there’s no question” that reform is needed.
Harris also held back from commenting on a new proposal from California legislators that would tighten the standard for when officers are allowed to use lethal force.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the language,” Harris told reporters. “I think they’re very interesting. Certainly there’s work to be done.”