Civil unrest and renewed frustration with the criminal justice system have further complicated Joe Biden's hunt for a running mate as three top-tier candidates with backgrounds in law enforcement face a fresh round of scrutiny.
For Biden, who said last week he is “furious” over President Donald Trump’s response to protests, the decision to pick someone with experience in law enforcement could bolster his ticket -- a foil to counter Trump’s self-proclaimed stake as the “law and order president.” But he also risks alienating voters by choosing someone with a controversial track record in their previous posts, particularly at a time when decades-long cries of injustice have erupted in protests across the country.
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer last week “fundamentally changes” Biden’s selection process, according to Matthew Dowd, an ABC News political analyst, and calls into question the viability of a trio of prospective selections: Senators Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, both former prosecutors, and Rep. Val Demings, a former police chief.
For Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who critics say disproportionately targeted people of color during her time as county attorney in the greater Minneapolis area, the path to reconciliation with black voters will be difficult to navigate.
Critics point to her penchant as a prosecutor to send cases of police-involved shootings to grand juries to decide whether or not to bring charges. In an interview on MSNBC last week, Klobuchar expressed remorse for that recurring theme of her tenure, conceding that “it would have been much better if I took the responsibility and looked at the cases and made the decision myself.”
As a presidential candidate, scrutiny of her prosecutorial record reached a fever pitch in February when an Associated Press investigation raised questions about the case of a young black man named Myon Burrell, who Klobuchar prosecuted despite a dearth of physical or DNA evidence and conflicting witness accounts.
The story prompted calls from civil rights leaders for Klobuchar to leave the race. Weeks later, on the eve of Super Tuesday and citing insufficient campaign funds, she did just that. And in the wake of Floyd’s death, many of those same voices are now protesting her consideration as Biden’s running mate.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a longtime legislator and prominent black leader, said Floyd’s death “is very tough timing for Amy Klobuchar,” but said she remains qualified for the position.
For her part, Klobuchar has continued to contribute to the debate over policing and has actively endeavored to rehabilitate her relationship with black voters – a key constituency for Democrats, and one Biden is actively courting in appearances by touting his civil rights record in the senate and his ties to the country’s first black president.
“This moment of race discussions puts greater pressure on Biden to pick a woman of color,” Dowd said. “Biden needs someone on the ticket who has a personal relation to the issue -- and who can speak on it from that vantage point.”
Enter Harris, of California, and Demings, of Florida. Both Democrats are women of color, and both have served in law enforcement roles.
Another former prosecutor, Harris has staked much of her political identity on experience as a district attorney in San Francisco then as California’s first black attorney general.
But from the earliest stages of her career, Harris' relationship with policing has proved a complicated one. A former 2020 contender for the Democratic nomination, critics have said her progressive posture on the campaign trail does not reflect her prosecutorial record.
During her presidential bid, Harris faced backlash for her declining to support a 2015 bill that would have required the state attorney general’s office, which she occupied at the time, to investigate all fatal police-involved shootings. On the campaign trail in 2019, Harris denied allegations that she had opposed the bill, instead arguing that while attorney general she had declined to take a position on this bill and others as a matter of policy.
"So, I did not oppose the bill. I had a process when I was attorney general of not weighing in on bills and initiatives, because as attorney general, I had a responsibility for writing the title and summary," Harris told CNN's Jake Tapper when asked about her policy stance. "So I did not weigh in.”
Opponents have bristled that Harris' declination to support the bill reflects Harris' private opposition to it. Asked about this by The New York Times in 2019, a spokesperson for Harris' campaign told the Times that Harris "expressed that she had concern about taking discretion away from local district attorneys who are held accountable by their constituents."
Her refusal to allow additional evidence testing in the case of a black man on death row has also drawn the ire of progressive groups. So too has her opposition to a ruling that would have halted the death penalty in California and her hesitance to back measures that would have required all police officers in the state to wear body cameras.
At times, Harris has been criticized by the other side.
In 2004, just months into her tenure as San Francisco district attorney, she made an enemy out of the city’s police union when she refused to seek the death penalty for a 22-year-old gang member named David Hill, who shot and killed a police officer. The decision ignited outrage from the officer’s family and the local police union, and Harris was called out at the officer's funeral by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who earned a standing ovation from officers.
Like Klobuchar, Harris has seen Floyd’s death as an opportunity to restore ties with the black community. She was spotted in Washington, D.C., over the weekend demonstrating with protestors, clapping along to chants of "hands up don't shoot” – a rallying cry for protesters of police violence against people of color.
Demings, a former police chief in Orlando, Fla., has also been vocal in the wake of Floyd’s death. In an editorial published last week by the Washington Post, Demings asked her “fellow brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?”
“In Minnesota, we have no choice but to hold the officers accountable through the criminal justice system,” she wrote. “But we cannot only be reactive. We must be proactive. We must work with law enforcement agencies to identify problems before they happen.”
As the top law enforcement official in Orlando from 2007-2011, Demings oversaw a dramatic decrease in violent crime – a feat she used in her subsequent bid to represent the city in the U.S. Congress. But progressive groups condemned her time leading the city’s police force as one of excessive use-of-force complaints and minimal police transparency.
“This has been a problem for a while, through her administration and others. The problem is the leadership of the department,” Lawanna Gelzer, the president of the National Action Network’s Central Florida chapter, told the Atlantic in 2015. “She’s not going to get my vote.”
After a story about the use of force went out in a weekly Orlando publication, Demings wrote in 2008 that “looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church. It won't take long to find one.”
Demings has defended her record as police chief and criticized the media for exaggerating complaints filed against her department.
“A local weekly publication chose to do an eight-page story on 98 claims of excessive force during the five-year period,” she wrote. “If we really focus on the numbers, the results are pretty amazing.”
The death of George Floyd will raise uncomfortable questions for Demings and Harris. But as black women with backgrounds in law enforcement, they might also share an opportunity to walk the “tight rope,” as Simpson called it: tout their experience as a means to bolster their credentials while simultaneously acknowledging that they were once part of the problem.
Ultimately, Simpson added, they might convince voters that they are in a unique position to be part of the solution.
All three women have sought to regain the trust of black voters in recent weeks. But in a charged environment, political analysts suggest Biden may opt to avoid the controversy altogether by choosing someone without the baggage of having served in law enforcement.
“The cleaner choice is probably for [Biden] to choose someone who does not have a law enforcement background, but is African American,” Simpson said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Yvette Simpson’s organization has endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, but she did not serve as an adviser.