WASHINGTON — As she nears a decision on whether to seek the presidency, Sen. Kamala Harris is taking on what could be a hurdle in a Democratic primary: her past as a prosecutor.
In her memoir published Tuesday, the California Democrat describes herself as a "progressive prosecutor" and says it's a "false choice" to decide between supporting the police and advocating for greater scrutiny of law enforcement. The argument is aimed at liberal critics of her record who argue she was sometimes too quick to side with the police and too slow to adopt sentencing reforms.
"I know that most police officers deserve to be proud of their public service and commended for the way they do their jobs," Harris writes in "The Truths We Hold." ''I know how difficult and dangerous the job is, day in and day out, and I know how hard it is for the officers' families, who have to wonder if the person they love will be coming home at the end of each shift."
But, she continues, "I also know this: it is a false choice to suggest you must either be for the police or for police accountability. I am for both. Most people I know are for both. Let's speak some truth about that, too."
After high-profile fatal shootings involving police officers and unarmed people of color, the criminal justice system's treatment of minorities is a top issue among Democratic voters. The passage suggests Harris is aware that her seven years as the district attorney in San Francisco, followed by six years as California's attorney general, is something she will have to explain and signals how she may frame her law enforcement career if she decides to run for the White House.
"It's a presidential campaign, and every aspect of a candidate's record is going to be scrutinized and they're going to have to answer for it," said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic operative who leads Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service. "She knows that this is something that's heading her way and a good candidate is one who doesn't wait for it to hit them. A good candidate is someone who addresses it proactively, and she appears to be doing that."
Beyond the book, Harris supported legislation that passed the Senate late last year and overhauls the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to sentencing rules.
In the book, Harris recounts an instance when she was an intern at the Alameda County district attorney's office and an innocent bystander was one of many people arrested during a drug raid. Harris said she "begged" and "pleaded" on a late Friday afternoon for a judge to hear the case so the woman could avoid spending the weekend in jail.
Kate Chatfield, the policy director of the California-based criminal justice reform group Re:store Justice, said Harris did do "some good" when she was in law enforcement, but that it was "incumbent on the public to hold her accountable for the ways in which she either didn't do enough or actually did some harm."
"When the conversation shifts, one should be expected to be questioned about those choices," Chatfield said, noting among other issues Harris's advocacy for tougher truancy laws.
By addressing policing in the book, Harris is taking on an issue that confronted Democrats and some Republicans in 2016. Democrat Hillary Clinton was criticized for her husband's role in passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which created stricter penalties for drug offenders and funneled billions of dollars toward more police and new prisons.