As top cop, Be­cerra faces key de­ci­sions on polic­ing

The at­tor­ney gen­eral could reshape how Cal­i­for­nia over­sees law en­force­ment as feds take smaller role.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Liam Dil­lon

SACRAMENTO — Dur­ing his first four months as state at­tor­ney gen­eral, Xavier Be­cerra po­si­tioned him­self at the front of the le­gal van­guard against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions on im­mi­gra­tion, health­care and cli­mate change.

But he has said lit­tle about an is­sue es­sen­tial to his job as Cal­i­for­nia’s top cop: polic­ing.

Be­cerra’s rel­a­tive si­lence and thin his­tory on law en­force­ment over­sight af­ter more than two decades in Congress have left civil rights ad­vo­cates and po­lice groups both hope­ful and con­cerned about his ten­ure. Will Be­cerra be­come an ac­count­abil­ity cru­sader or reaf­firm the long­stand­ing def­er­ence the state has given lo­cal de­part­ments, pros­e­cu­tors and of­fi­cers to man­age their af­fairs?

“He’s go­ing to anger some­body,” Kern County Sher­iff Donny Young­blood said. “We know that. He hasn’t made those de­ci­sions yet that some­body’s not go­ing to like. But they’re com­ing.”

Al­ready on Be­cerra’s plate is a civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter years of com­plaints about po­lice shoot­ings by Young­blood’s depart­ment and Bak­ers­field’s. Be­cerra is also in charge of im­ple­ment­ing a new law aimed at com­bat­ing po­lice racial pro­fil­ing.

More broadly, Be­cerra’s opin­ions on of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions and pub­lic ac­cess to po­lice dis­ci­plinary records and body cam­era footage could reshape how Cal­i­for­nia han­dles law en­force­ment over­sight at a time when the fed­eral govern­ment is back­ing away from that role.

In an in­ter­view with The Times, Be­cerra said he ex­pected to take a bal­anced ap­proach on law en­force­ment is­sues — em­pha­siz­ing that his pri­mary goal is to make peo­ple feel se­cure by sup­port­ing po­lice of­fi­cers who act pro­fes­sion­ally, but hold­ing ac­count­able those who don’t.

“I don’t want to be ab­sent when the dis­cus­sion is oc­cur­ring,” Be­cerra said of po­lice ac­count­abil­ity. “I’d rather be on the field help­ing move the ball for­ward. More likely than not, you’re go­ing to find me ac­tive on pol­icy.”

Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Jus­tice Depart­ment found sys­temic civil rights vi­o­la­tions com­mit­ted by po­lice of­fi­cers in Fer­gu­son, Mo., Bal­ti­more, Chicago and other cities fol­low­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions spurred by po­lice killings of black teenagers and young men. In De­cem­ber, fed­eral of­fi­cials be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors in Orange County amid al­le­ga­tions of mis­use of jail­house in­for­mants against crim­i­nal de­fen­dants.

But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sig­naled that sim­i­lar in­ter­ven­tions will be less fre­quent. The pres­i­dent and Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions have crit­i­cized the treat­ment of po­lice un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, say­ing it threat­ened law and or­der. Ses­sions is con­sid­er­ing rolling back po­lice re­forms ne­go­ti­ated in Bal­ti­more and Chicago, and has or­dered a

re­view of on­go­ing in­quiries, in­clud­ing the one in Orange County.

The dra­matic change in the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s tenor has raised ex­pec­ta­tions from law en­force­ment and civil rights groups about how Be­cerra will re­spond. Michael Du­rant, pres­i­dent of the 69,000-mem­ber Peace Of­fi­cers Re­search Assn. of Cal­i­for­nia, which rep­re­sents most rank-and-file of­fi­cers in the state, said Be­cerra should fol­low Ses­sions’ lead.

“I’m hop­ing on the is­sue of sup­port­ing law en­force­ment, Atty. Gen. Ses­sions and Atty. Gen. Be­cerra will stand on the same side,” Du­rant said.

Civil rights ad­vo­cates plan to pres­sure Be­cerra to fill over­sight gaps left by the fed­eral govern­ment.

“We’re go­ing to be putting him to the test,” said Melina Ab­dul­lah, a pro­fes­sor of Pan-African Stud­ies at Cal State L.A. and a mem­ber of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. “Es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing where Jeff Ses­sions is on all this. We can’t re­ally rely on the fed­eral govern­ment to in­ter­vene.”

The state has the power to launch civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tions of po­lice de­part­ments, but has sel­dom used it. The Kern County and Bak­ers­field in­quiry — ini­ti­ated just be­fore Be­cerra’s pre­de­ces­sor, Ka­mala Har­ris, re­signed to be­come a U.S. sen­a­tor — is just the third ever un­der­taken.

Few de­tails have emerged so far. The Bak­ers­field Po­lice Depart­ment has turned over nu­mer­ous records to Be­cerra’s of­fice, a po­lice spokesman con­firmed be­fore de­clin­ing fur­ther com­ment. Two weeks ago, state Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­ter­viewed fam­i­lies whose rel­a­tives have been killed by of­fi­cers, ad­vo­cates in Kern County said.

Ac­tivist groups and some mem­bers of the state’s Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus crit­i­cized Har­ris for not be­ing more ac­tive on polic­ing is­sues, in­clud­ing opt­ing against civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tions af­ter dis­puted po­lice shoot­ings and mis­con­duct is­sues in Bay Area and Los Angeles de­part­ments.

Gwen­dolyn Woods, whose 26-year-old son, Mario, was killed by San Francisco po­lice in late 2015, has re­newed a re­quest that Be­cerra in­ves­ti­gate that depart­ment.

“When do you say hu­man­ity takes prece­dence over pol­i­tics?” Woods said dur­ing a small rally of protesters out­side the Capi­tol last month.

Be­cerra’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment on the Kern County and Bak­ers­field in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause it is on­go­ing. But Be­cerra in­di­cated that he would be­come more in­volved in po­lice over­sight if the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion stepped away.

“Any time the fed­eral govern­ment fum­bles and it’s im­por­tant for the in­ter­ests and the pro­tec­tion of the peo­ple in this state, we’ll be there ready to pick up their fum­ble,” Be­cerra said.

Those look­ing for in­sight into Be­cerra’s views on po­lice ac­count­abil­ity won’t find much from his time in Congress. Fed­eral law­mak­ers don’t of­ten have to vote on law en­force­ment over­sight is­sues.

Back in the early 2000s, civil rights groups crit­i­cized Be­cerra and other Los Angeles Latino po­lit­i­cal lead­ers for a muted re­sponse to the Ram­part cor­rup­tion scan­dal in the Los Angeles Po­lice Depart­ment. At the time, Be­cerra said he wasn’t in­ter­ested in bash­ing law en­force­ment be­cause some of­fi­cers went rogue.

Should Be­cerra want to pur­sue law en­force­ment over­sight more ag­gres­sively, pub­lic opin­ion is mov­ing that di­rec­tion, said Fer­nando Guerra, di­rec­tor of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Cen­ter for the Study of Los Angeles at Loy­ola Mary­mount Univer­sity. A re­cent sur­vey by the cen­ter found that more than twothirds of Los Angeles County res­i­dents agree with the aims of Black Lives Mat­ter, in­clud­ing al­most 60% of whites.

Still, in re­cent years Demo­cratic law­mak­ers have split on many high-pro­file law en­force­ment is­sues, leav­ing a stale­mate that has fa­vored the state’s strong po­lice of­fi­cer pro­tec­tions. Cal­i­for­nia is one of three states to pro­hibit the re­lease of of­fi­cer dis­ci­pline in­for­ma­tion, even in cases of con­firmed mis­con­duct, and a bill last year to loosen those re­stric­tions failed. Law­mak­ers also have dead­locked on statewide stan­dards for po­lice body cam­eras, and most de­part­ments don’t re­lease footage out­side of a court­room.

Be­cerra has met re­peat­edly with law en­force­ment and ad­vo­cacy groups since he’s taken of­fice to un­der­stand their con­cerns. That ap­proach could help the Leg­is­la­ture re­solve such dis­putes, said As­sem­bly­man Reg­gie Jones-Sawyer (DLos Angeles), who heads the As­sem­bly Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee.

“Whether it’s body cam­eras, polic­ing, grand ju­ries, we’ve hit log­ger­heads in some of th­ese and we haven’t been able to move it,” Jones-Sawyer said. “I think Xavier Be­cerra may be the one to break the log jam.”

Be­cerra has yet to weigh in on one bill that could dra­mat­i­cally change of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions in Cal­i­for­nia. The mea­sure from As­sem­bly­man Kevin Mc­Carty (D-Sacramento) would cre­ate a new depart­ment in Be­cerra’s of­fice to han­dle th­ese in­ves­ti­ga­tions if lo­cal pros­e­cu­tors re­quested the as­sis­tance. Mc­Carty has said he wants to sever the per­ceived con­flict of in­ter­est be­tween district at­tor­neys who rely on lo­cal po­lice for their cases. The Rev. Al Sharp­ton lob­bied in fa­vor of the bill at the Capi­tol last month, and the As­sem­bly nar­rowly passed it this month de­spite law en­force­ment op­po­si­tion. Be­cerra said he hasn’t de­cided if his of­fice should be more in­volved in th­ese cases.

Be­cerra will have to make key de­ci­sions on another hot-but­ton topic. Po­lice of­fi­cers across the state will soon have to track the per­ceived race and other de­mo­graphic data when they pull over cars or stop pedes­tri­ans. The ef­fort, cre­ated through leg­is­la­tion passed two years ago, is an at­tempt to pre­vent po­lice racial pro­fil­ing. Be­cerra is re­spon­si­ble for writ­ing the reg­u­la­tions.

The rules were sup­posed to be fin­ished be­fore Be­cerra took of­fice in Jan­uary. But a pro­posal writ­ten by an ad­vi­sory board has come un­der strong crit­i­cism from law en­force­ment groups. They ex­pect Be­cerra to scale back the in­for­ma­tion that of­fi­cers need to track be­fore the rules be­come fi­nal.

Be­cerra told law­mak­ers dur­ing his Jan­uary con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that, as a teenager, po­lice of­fi­cers pulled him over with­out giv­ing a rea­son while he was driv­ing with two friends who were also Latino.

That in­ci­dent, he said, in­formed how he sees law en­force­ment is­sues. But so has meet­ing with the fam­i­lies of po­lice of­fi­cers who have been killed in the line of duty.

“Hav­ing been pulled over when I was a kid for no rea­son and hand­ing a f lag to the spouse of a fallen of­fi­cer, some­where in be­tween there’s a right way to do things,” Be­cerra said.

Rich Pe­dron­celli AP

ATTY. GEN. Xavier Be­cerra said he’ll aim for bal­ance on po­lice is­sues.

Jeff Chiu Ass­coiated Press

GWEN­DOLYN WOODS, the mother of a man killed by San Francisco po­lice, has re­newed a re­quest that Atty. Gen. Xavier Be­cerra in­ves­ti­gate that depart­ment.

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