Thursday, April 12, 2018

SACRAMENTO—California's first Black U.S. senator said last week that better training is needed to help police officers recognize biases in response to last month's shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed Black man shot by Sacramento police.

“There is no question that that was a life that should not have been lost,” Kamala Harris said at a town hall meeting in Sacramento. “That is a life that should not have been ended.”

Harris spoke to a mostly supportive audience of several hundred people nearly three weeks after two officers chased Clark, who was suspected of breaking into cars, into his grandparents' darkened backyard and opened fire. The officers thought he was carrying a gun but later found he was holding a cellphone.

The shooting touched off tense protests in California's capital as demonstrators demanded the officers be indicted.

Clark's grandmother, who was in the audience, was given a standing ovation.

“My heart breaks for what has happened,” Harris said.

Harris, who has an Indian mother and Jamaican father, was California's first attorney general who wasn't a white man and has been mentioned as a potential candidate for president in 2020.

Officers must be trained to recognize how their unconscious biases influence decisions about how to enforce the law and the appropriate level of force to use, she said. Everyone carries bias, she said, “but when your bias is coupled with the fact that you carry a gun, it is something that has to be a priority for all of us.”

Following high-profile police shootings of unarmed civilians around the country, the former attorney general ordered her agency to review its own training on bias and use of force, and she created a statewide program that she said has now trained 2,000 officers to avoid having their biases influence their ability the use the appropriate level of force.

But she also resisted calls to lead independent investigations of questionable police shootings, saying local district attorneys can be trusted to fairly investigate.

Harris declined to comment on proposals in the state Legislature to change policies on the use of force by police. One would make California the first state to significantly restrict when officers can open fire, changing the standard from using “reasonable force” to “necessary force.”

“I'm looking forward to seeing the language,” Harris said. “I think they're very interesting (proposals). Certainly there's work to be done.”