Arun Venugopal: I'm Arun Venugopal in for Tanzina Vega today. Good to be with you. In early June, near the start of this summer's racial justice uprising, California Governor Gavin Newsom told demonstrators that their voices were being heard.
Gavin Newsom: We have a responsibility to change. Our institutions need to change, our capacity of understanding needs to change. We need to contextualize not only this moment but moments in the past where we never met these calls and these cries that we ran short. We ran long on rhetoric, short on results.
Arun: This week, California reached the end of its legislative session and while several criminal justice bills were passed, a number of more progressive measures ultimately fell short. To get a better sense of what this round of criminal justice legislation means for the Golden State, I spoke with Marisa Lagos, politics correspondent at KQED News and co-host of the podcast Political Breakdown.
Marisa Lagos: Broadly, this is an attempt to institute more oversight of police and make sure that there is a public accounting when things do go wrong. One of them, the main one I would say, is AB 1506. This is something that an assemblyman from Sacramento has been trying to pass for at least five years and it essentially would say that in the case of a deadly police shooting that investigation will be taken from the agency where it happened and given either to the state attorney general or possibly to a new state agency if the attorney general doesn't want it.
The big catch here is they would need to fund that before it can go into effect, so there's some questions. There's another bill that's going to let local counties create oversight commissions for sheriffs who are elected and don't really have the same oversight that we see a lot of city police departments. Finally, they did ban chokeholds. That was obviously a big point of contention after the George Floyd killing and I think that one was not as controversial as some of the other ones that did not make it through this year.
Arun: Let's talk about what you refer to as essentially the centerpiece of this raft of legislation, AB 1506. What kind of opposition were you seeing from law enforcement and their allies in recent weeks?
Marisa: Well, this is something that interestingly, I think behind the scenes, we've seen lobbying for many years around this issue and concern, particularly, from unions. This is one of those interesting ones, where we have seen historically, sometimes a split between chiefs and rank and file. I do think that this is more of a question of prosecutors. The big split here has actually been between the question of local control, should a local district attorney be able to--
Can they do an impartial and fair investigation or does that need to be taken up to the state level where they might not have the same kind of connections and quite frankly working relationship? I think a big question here is whether local prosecutors are beholden to the police department in a way that the attorney general wouldn't. We've also seen the last two attorney generals, Kamala Harris, now the Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Xavier Becerra, who's a pretty progressive Democrat, has sued the Trump administration 100 times, they both, as attorney general, pushback on this saying they don't have the resources to do these types of investigations.
I think that that's why we ended up with this piece saying, "Hey, you have to fund this," and really, I think there's a longer runway in terms of when this could actually take effect because of those concerns from prosecutors. I just did some deep dives into Kamala Harris' record and I found out that, interestingly, one of the reasons she really pushed back was that when she was first district attorney, folks threatened to take a murder case of a police officer.
A gang member had shot a police officer. She had run saying she wouldn't take the death penalty. She did not. That angered a lot of cops. They went to the state attorney general and said, "Hey, take this case away." When she was then attorney general eight years later, she was like, "No, I don't want to be taking away this power from local elected DAs." Unlike some of the policing stuff, I think a lot of the conversation has been around the prosecutor role more even than the police department itself.
Arun: Now that these bills have been passed, what actually happens next?
Marisa: They are sitting on Governor Gavin Newsom's desk. He did come out broadly in support of broad brushstrokes on police reform and then some specifics. We know, for example, that he had said that the chokehold ban should be instituted. I would be surprised if he vetoed any of these bills but never say never.
Arun: You have some level of uncertainty in terms of implementing some of these measures. It's unclear right now, isn't it, the extent to which they'll actually, I guess, go forward?
Marisa: Yes. I think that this shows really the sustained power of law enforcement even in this moment of this racial uprising and really, I think widespread support for some of these oversight measures. The police unions, the sheriffs' unions, the correctional officers' unions in California have historically been very powerful and had really, especially in the '90s and early 2000s, funded a lot of the tough-on-crime measures.
I don't think they hold the same power they did 20 years ago, but there are certainly a lot of more moderate Democrats in the state legislature who don't want to cross them. The other interesting thing I always think about is, for example, a sheriff is a countywide elected official, a DA is a countywide elected official, a police chief represents an entire city essentially. Those elected officials get more votes, have more constituents than a state assemblyperson. They do come with a kind of power when they come to lobby for or against things that we don't see from all local officials.
Arun: What else should we know that didn't make it through?
Marisa: There's another bill that was aiming to build on a previous measure that really opened up police misconduct records at the beginning of the year and has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of cases being opened up by folks like my colleagues at KQED and really finding some horrific evidence of misconduct. One of the things that we found after this first bill passed was that a lot of police officers can get fired and then go on to be hired elsewhere.
That plays into that certification issue I was talking about. One of the state senators had wanted to essentially open records reform even further and said, "It's not just certain serious incidents like sexual misconduct or a deadly shooting." They wanted any sustained instance of use of force by an officer or any instance where an officer is found to have lied to be a public record and that one also did not make it through this year.
Arun: Now there are some ballot measures that are going to be up before voters in November concerning criminal justice. Can you tell us what some of those measures entail?
Marisa: This is really interesting, Arun, because these are about measures that were put on before George Floyd's death and before a lot of these protests this summer. One of them is essentially seeking-- It's a referendum on a bill that was passed two years ago by the legislature and signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown to essentially end cash bail in California. This was put on by the bail industry, they are asking voters to reject that law. That's going to be a pretty big fight when I know folks in New York are familiar with because you guys have had these debates as well, as well as across the country really.
The other is a grab bag that is being put on by a former police officer who was actually a Democratic but a pretty moderate Democratic state assemblyman, some district attorneys, and other law enforcement. It seeks to roll back a series of reforms that have been instituted through different laws over the past 10 years. Some of those were written by former Governor Jerry Brown. He just yesterday told me he's putting $1 million into trying to defeat that measure and advocates think that essentially by in broad brushstrokes, what that measure would do is make it harder for many inmates to parole from state prison and really easier in a lot of cases for prosecutors to send more people to jails and prisons.
Critics of this proposal say that it would really roll back a lot of the progress California has made around lowering its prison population and focusing on rehabilitation and reentry over-incarceration and really harsh prison sentences. You really do see an interesting coalition of folks coming out against this and in some ways, an interesting coalition pushing it because it's not just a partisan issue as I mentioned.
Arun: Yes. Let's hear what ex-Governor Jerry Brown had to say to you yesterday.
JerryBrown: The only reason that some police unions have tried to fight it and some of the DAs [unintelligible 00:09:14] they are part of an enterprise that depends for its growth on more people being locked up or they have this ideology that there can be no redemption, no improvement, that once a man commits one act or three or four acts, that that is his whole essence forever. Everything we know about human beings is that they can change. Maybe not everybody, but certainly a good number of people.
Arun: Given these measures that we're seeing come out of the California Legislature, do you see Black Lives Matter activists and their allies doubling down, or are they taking a break in trying to reassess the landscape here?
Marisa: I think activists are scattered in a way. I think that there's a lot of folks who have spent a lot of energy trying to push the legislature to do things. It's a slightly different coalition who is most involved at this point in fighting Prop 20 and the bail ballot measure. I'm interested to see how things play out over the next 60 days or so because I do think that we've seen public opinion really shifting wildly this summer around Black Lives Matter and the protest.
It's really hard to tell how everything happening nationally is going to impact these ballot measures. We know that people if they are confused or not sure, they tend to say no to things, but both sides in that Prop 20 debate, for example, claim that their polling shows them ahead. Who knows? There's always the wildcard, the right of this presidential race, and the protest and where things move. Whether it be here or in other states.
Arun: Marisa Lagos is a politics correspondent at KQED News and co-host of the podcast Political Breakdown. Thanks so much, Marisa.
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