Criminal Justice Backgrounds of Kamala Harris, Val Demings Come Into Question As Joe Biden Shortlists Them For VP

Under pressure to choose a black woman as a running mate, Joe Biden has named a former prosecutor and a police chief to his shortlist, raising questions about whether considering members of the criminal justice system is the right move while the country is still reeling after the death of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.

California Senator Kamala Harris, the former prosecutor, and Florida Representative Val Demings, the former police chief, have emerged as strong candidates to be the vice presidential nominee, in part because they are African American. But while advocates, including black activists, acknowledge the historic lack of diversity at the top of presidential tickets, they said that being black isn't enough in this day and age and that truly speaking to the community means records and votes should be given equal weight.

"Just like there's a lack of excitement around Biden, there's a lack of excitement around prosecutors and cops taking higher office," Amika Tendaji of Black Lives Matter Chicago, told Newsweek.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is such an example, she said. Lightfoot used to serve as chair of the city's police board, yet in the 14 months since her election, the black former prosecutor hasn't been a strong enough advocate for the black community, Tendaji argued. She pointed to Lightfoot telling Chicago residents not to believe videos of protesters being beaten and to citizens who were surveilled after police board meetings, which led to condemnation from Lightfoot but no firings.

The vice-presidential selection, she added, "is definitely about their records. Black identity is certainly not enough when we've watched reel after reel of police brutality executed by black cops."

Now, vice-presidential candidates are also being scrutinized under this lens. Harris's record as attorney general was examined earlier in the 2020 campaign than that of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is white, a move that Harris' allies saw as a sign of bias. But Klobuchar also has seen her stock as a possible VP pick drop in recent weeks after black and Latino groups said her record as a prosecutor was disqualifying. Activists, similarly, have been critical of her record as a prosecutor.

As attorney general from 2011 to 2017, Harris didn't support California ballot initiatives that sought to lower nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and increase the chances of early parole for some nonviolent offenders. She also didn't support legislation that would require cops to wear body cameras or ensure independent investigations of officer-involved killings, which she came out for in the wake of Floyd's killing. Activists have also been critical of her past support for raising cash bail when she was district attorney for San Francisco.

Demings, who has a lower national profile than Harris, has lept to the center of the VP conversation as the protests fanned across the country because of her time as Orlando police chief from 2007 to 2011 and the belief that she could serve as a bridge between protesters and police for Biden.

Still, even within the campaign, there are concerns that a former police chief is too exposed once vetting kicks into high gear, because every single police interaction could be scrutinized and Demings would shoulder the blame. A Biden aide said Demings is well-liked but "there's concern about what liabilities are out there. When you're a police chief, no matter who on the force is blamed, the buck stops with you."

There are cases during Demings' tenure that stand out as examples of police brutality is in the spotlight.In 2010, 84-year-old World War II veteran Daniel Daley had his neck broken after being slammed to the ground by an Orlando cop, winning an $880,000 settlement. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, with Demings saying at the time that the officer could have taken the man's age into consideration but training staff and the officer's chain of command determined "it appears the officer performed the technique within department guidelines."

Representatives for both Harris and Demings declined Newsweek's request for comment on the story.

Still, allies and political observers said that the backgrounds of Harris and Demings are a political advantage during this time of national upheaval because they bring the personal experience that goes beyond political talking points and would be useful during the general election.

In 1990, when Harris was admitted to the state bar of California, she said she believed the country needed "more socially aware prosecutors" and wanted to work in the justice system because she wanted to be "at the table where decisions are made."

"Now more than ever having a law enforcement background is a strength. We need change from within the system," former Harris campaign senior advisor Emmy Ruiz, told Newsweek.

Her experience and leadership is "tailor-made" for the police reform commission Biden announced for his first 100 days, Ruiz said.

Beverly Neal, who has known Demings for 20 years, said critics who dismiss Demings because she was a police chief should judge the book by its contents, not its cover. Neal, who is the chairwoman of the Orlando chapter of the National Congress of Black Women—of which Demings is a member—awarded her the Shirley Chisholm award because she said Demings is "unbought and unbossed."

"Val Demings is one of the most impressive members of Congress period, full stop," said Florida Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. "She's the type of person who would only be a value-add and Biden would be hard-pressed to do a lot better than her."

In the meantime, Harris and Demings have waded into the political sensitivities around the defund the police movement, while also doing the events possible vice presidential nominees must do. On The View last week, Harris took on host Meghan McCain's question, embracing the need to change levels of police funding.

"To have cities where one-third of their entire budget is going into policing but yet there is a dire need in those same cities for mental health resources, for resources going into public schools, resources going into job training and job creation, come on," Harris said.

Harris will also headline another Biden fundraiser Thursday, with Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healy.

Demings herself went on The View Monday, telling Whoopi Goldberg she started out as a social worker working with "broken families and broken children" and said her law enforcement background gives her the "on the ground experience, the credibility and the political will and courage" to do the job.

The protests, fueled by racial inequities, are a reminder to some Democrats that picking a black woman isn't enough in its own right to make Americans comfortable with the VP pick. They recall the long list of popular sitcoms with black families like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters that had patriarchs who worked in law enforcement: Uncle Phil was a judge, and Carl Winslow was a cop.

"Being a black woman and having these backgrounds creates a unique sensitivity," said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. "Someone who was a cop or prosecutor could bring a much-need perspective at this time."

kamala harris val demings
Left, Carolyn Kaster/POOL/AFP via Getty Images. Right, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Getty