Opinion: Public needs cold, hard numbers on use of deadly force

Attorney General Kamala Harris
California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris speaks Friday while flanked by law enforcement officials including Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams, left of Harris; Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.

California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris wasn’t campaigning for U.S. Senate on Jan. 5, the day of her inauguration for her second term. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s retirement announcement was still a few days away. But even as Harris was making promises for the next four years, you got the sense that her mind was already on her next job.

Nothing wrong with that; ambitious elected officials tend get things done. And Friday, Harris delivered on one of the promises she made in her inaugural speech. To deal with the “crisis in confidence” sparked by the separate killings of two unarmed African American men, she said she would demand a “complete review of our special agent training on implicit bias and use of force.”

To announce the results of that 90-day-review, Harris convened a news  conference Friday in her Los Angeles office, flanked by a power lineup of police leadership -- LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the police chiefs of Oxnard and Stockton as well as the assistant chief of Oakland Police Department. The highlights: a policy for her department that “expressly prohibits” bias on the basis of age, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.; training to help officers get past their biases; and a working group of police officials hammering out ways to regain community trust.

Harris gets credit for making it a priority to lead and encourage positive change among the state’s law enforcement agencies at a time of so much public distrust over the use of deadly force. But there was a crucial piece missing from her discussion: data.


There’s a growing suspicion that police are too quick to use excessive force, especially on black and Latino men. And not just in Ferguson, Mo., or Staten Island, or North Charleston, S.C., or Tulsa, Okla. In Los Angeles, in San Bernardino and in Lodi, too. But it’s been hard to quantify since there’s such a shocking dearth of data nationwide on the use of force or the number and situation of people killed by police.

California’s Department of Justice is fortunate to have more data about people killed during arrests than many other states. The attorney general’s office has collected death-in-custody reports (which include deaths during the arrest process) from the state’s law enforcement agencies and prisons for more than a decade. But it has kept the information mostly to itself.

That ought to change. Not only should the DOJ publish death-in-custody information, it should analyze it and use it to inform public safety policy.

There’s hope this will change soon. The month before her January inauguration, Harris’ spokesman said the DOJ was planning to publish the data from the state’s law enforcement agencies of people killed during the process of arrest. And after the news conference Friday, Harris reiterated the commitment to giving the public those numbers. Her office is working on a format to release that data on a yearly basis, though there’s no start date yet.


That’s good, but the sooner, the better. All the policy changes and working groups in the world can’t fix a breach in trust until there’s a public accounting of the cold, hard numbers.

Follow me on Twitter @marielgarzaLAT


Get our weekly Opinion newsletter