Veep debate: Fact-check on Kamala Harris as California prosecutor

Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris as she answers a question during the vice presidential debate Oct. 7, 2020, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Photo by AP Morry Gash, AP Photo/Pool
Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris as she answers a question during the vice presidential debate Oct. 7, 2020, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Photo by AP Morry Gash, AP Photo/Pool

A few things distinguished tonight’s vice presidential debate from the Trump-on-Biden interruption-fest that the nation suffered through last week:

  • The two were separated by prophylactic plexiglass
  • Tupac was invited for some reason
  • A fly made a surprise appearance on the vice president’s head
  • The back-and-forth was, for the most part, actually a back-and-forth, rather than a free-for-all of interjections and insults

Another difference particularly applicable to Californians: Democratic nominee Sen. Kamala Harris gave American voters a preview of criminal justice policy under a Biden-Harris administration that she said was based on her record here.

It was a selective summary — one that papered over some of her earlier positions that progressives have criticized. And in a vertigo-inducing twist, a couple of those criticisms from the left were lobbed at her tonight by Republican Vice President Mike Pence, even as he sought to cast her as the vanguard of radicals.

“I was the first statewide officer,” she added, “to institute a requirement that my agents would wear body cameras and keep them on full-time.”

A history check: 

As California’s top prosecutor, Harris did mandate body cameras for agents of the state Justice Department — but they represented a sliver of policing in the state. At the time she opposed a body-camera requirement for all law enforcement officers in California, saying in 2015 that “we should invest in the ability of law enforcement leaders in specific regions and with their departments to use … discretion to figure out what technology they are going to adopt based on needs that they have and resources that they have.”

Her office also developed a new re-entry program as well as an implicit bias training curriculum, which Harris also touted tonight. Although she sponsored legislation requiring all police officers to receive that training, the bill stalled in the Legislature and subsequent efforts have also failed. 

During the Democratic primary, some progressives lambasted Harris for her prosecutorial record. And though the president and his campaign spent much of the summer characterizing Joe Biden as anti-police, it was Pence who took up the “Kamala is Cop” critique and ran with it tonight.

“When you were DA in San Francisco, when you left office, African Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics,” he said. 

“When you were attorney general of California, you increased the disproportionate incarceration of blacks in California,” he continued. “You did nothing on criminal justice.”

A 2012 study from the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that in 2009, during Harris’ second term as the city’s prosecutor, Black San Franciscans between the ages of 10 and 69 were 19 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related felonies. The study does not review prosecutions, over which Harris would have had control. It is unclear whether Pence was referring to this particular study.

Harris — who spent much of the debate directing her patented eyebrow-raised “are you serious?” face at Pence — punched back that she would “not be lectured by the vice president.” 

She also promised that a Biden administration would push for the banning of chokeholds by police, the elimination of private prisons, an end to cash bail, and the decriminalization of marijuana. 

These are all policies that have been implemented, one way or another, in California. A chokehold ban was passed into law this year. The state began to phase out private prisons last year. Voters legalized marijuana in 2016 and a cash bail ban was passed by the Legislature in 2018, although it is now before the voters via referendum as Proposition 25

But Harris did not have a hand in these initiatives — and in some cases she actively opposed the changes.

Veep debates (and vice presidential candidates in general) are rarely the deciding factor for voters. But they may have stronger resonance in 2020. 

President Trump is already the oldest person to have first assumed the presidency. Biden is older. There’s a highly contagious virus spreading uncontrolled across the globe that disproportionately afflicts the elderly.

Oh, and one of the candidates — the sitting president — happens to have it. 

For voters, that all may make the relative strengths of each ticket’s presidential alternative a more pressing concern this time.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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