After United States Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden confirmed his selection as Kamala Harris as his running mate on August 11 2020, a Facebook meme purportedly quoted Harris on policing in 2009 and 2020 — expressing what appeared to be contradictory positions on policing:
An attached status update described Harris as “a lying HYPOCRITE.”
The meme showed two images of her alongside two quotes, which read:
If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up.
Kamala Harris (2009)
It is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong.
Kamala Harris (2020)
The second of the two quotes also appeared in a June 2020 tweet:
Kamala Harris does not say defund the police. She said. "The status quo thinking that more police creates more safety is wrong. It's wrong. And it has motivated too much of municipal budgets and the thinking of policymakers."
— Michael McAuliff (@mmcauliff) June 16, 2020
It didn’t take very long to locate sources for both statements attributed to Harris. An August 9 2020 New York Times article (“‘Top Cop’ Kamala Harris’s Record of Policing the Police”) reported:
Ms. Harris declined to be interviewed for this article. But over the years, she has proudly labeled herself both a “top cop” and a “progressive prosecutor.”
In her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” she wrote that “if we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up,” adding that “virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat.”
Earlier this summer [of 2020], in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she told The New York Times that “it is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”
All of which poses a question: Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed? And is she the woman to lead a police-reform effort from the White House?
In the same month the Times quoted Harris on “status-quo thinking” about police and policing, New York Magazine obtained a similar quote from her for a June 19 2020 interview:
As the spotlight has narrowed, Harris has been elevating her work with a small group of lawmakers like Cory Booker to offer a wide range of law-enforcement reforms. Their Justice in Policing Act proposes a ban on police choke holds, limits on the transfer of military weapons to departments, the establishment of a national registry of police misconduct, and restrictions on qualified immunity for law enforcement. “The status quo’s not working,” Harris tells New York. “Every time we talk about consequence and accountability it seems to be directed at the person who’s been arrested, and not the system.”
Regarding a specific question about defunding police departments, Harris said:
Well, I think we have to reimagine how we are achieving public safety. We have to understand that if the goal is safety, one of the most effective ways to achieve that goal is to have healthy communities. Healthy communities are safe communities. So how do you achieve healthy communities? That should be the question. Well, you have access to health care and mental-health care. You have access to capital for small businesses. You invest in the public education system. You invest in affordable housing and increase home ownership, job skills development and jobs. When you see those things, you will see healthy communities. It’s status quo thinking, and it’s misinformed, to think that putting more cops on the street creates more safety. What creates more safety is when you invest in the health and well-being of a community.
That interview linked to a June 6 2020 Politico piece about public perception of Harris’ stances on criminal justice and policing in general. Included was information about elements of Harris’ career which were not well received by advocates of justice reform:
As attorney general, Harris opposed legalizing marijuana and stayed out of controversial statewide ballot initiatives aimed at lowering nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and giving certain nonviolent felons a chance at early parole. She did not back state legislation requiring independent investigations of officer-involved killings or a bill to mandate police officers wear body cameras. And as district attorney years before, she supported raising cash bail.
Politico spoke with advocates for police reform, adding:
Early in her career, Harris refused to seek the death penalty for a member of a gang who shot and killed a San Francisco police officer, prompting calls for the case to be taken from her. She reasoned that getting rid of prosecutorial discretion would threaten district attorneys like herself. “
Harris’ transformation began in earnest when she left law enforcement in 2016. She conceded at points in the campaign that she wishes she’d done more to advance change, and she credited activism around the Black Lives Matter movement with expanding the range of reforms that came to be viewed as possible. Before releasing her campaign criminal justice plan last fall , which became the foundation for her attitudes today, she spent months in frequent contact with reformers and policymakers.
The article concluded:
“All of us have evolved, right? We didn’t wake up woke,” [reform advocate Jamira] Burley said. “This is a moment where we’re really reevaluating what we consider to be not only justice, but also safety. And those might look very different for different communities.”
Harris’ criminal justice blueprint called for terminating federal mandatory minimum sentences and encouraging states to do the same; ending the death penalty and solitary confinement; and phasing out cash bail and for-profit prisons. It sought to end sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses and legalize marijuana at the federal level.
“I observed someone who took a lot of rightful incoming, but spent time listening and hearing from folks about the progressive movement for reform,” said Color of Change President Rashad Robinson. “People are in a place right now where they recognize the failures of the incremental steps for reform that have been put on the table over the years. People are making very big and serious demands that get to the problem. And we need elected officials that will meet us there.”
Asked whether Harris is one of those officials, Robinson suggested she was on her way.
“I know she is willing to be in that conversation,” he said last week, before abruptly excusing himself to take a call from the senator’s office.
The quotes were accurately transcribed and properly dated, reflecting Kamala Harris’ evolving public positions on policing and criminal justice reform. Neither of the quotes were buried secrets, as they appeared in tandem in an August 2020 New York Times article. Much of the criticism directed at Harris during the initial Democratic primary (in which she was a candidate) involved her history as a district attorney, as well as her public pivot on issues such as police reform. The meme is certainly true, but the underlying context of Harris’ dueling statements was very well documented.