With Stephon Clark Probe Underway, Attorney General Says State Can't Investigate All Police Shootings

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at KQED in San Francisco on April 25, 2018. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was more than willing to comply when local officials asked his office to investigate the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police. But he told KQED this week that it's not realistic to expect the attorney general to probe every single officer-involved shooting in the state.

And if state law were to change to take that power away from local district attorneys and give it to the California attorney general, Becerra said that responsibility would need to come with significant resources.

"There are 58 counties in the state of California," he said in an interview with KQED. "We don't have the resources to just say, 'We'll take on every case.' I mean, we can have that discussion. But what I would say is if you want to build trust and confidence, you've got to do it the right way ... you can't do it on the cheap."

Last year, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, authored a bill that, in its original form, would have required Becerra's office to investigate all officer involved shootings if lawmakers provided the funds for the attorney general's investigations.

Becerra backed the bill after it was scaled back to only require a review of 2015 and 2016 shootings, but it still failed after staunch opposition from law enforcement.

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Becerra declined this week to take a position on two new bills introduced in recent weeks that also seek to address the issue of police force.

One, by McCarty and San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, both Democrats, would narrow the circumstances when officers are legally allowed to shoot. Another, by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would make it easier for the public to obtain information about police officers who use deadly force, commit sexual assault or lie on the job.

California currently has among the strictest privacy protections for police officers in the nation, and powerful police groups are fighting both bills.

Becerra told KQED that he's not taking a position on either bill at this point, but said as the state's top law enforcement officer, he will "weigh in as appropriate."

Becerra added that he doesn't want any of his positions on legislation to undermine the Stephon Clark investigation.

"Clearly, the conversation has to occur and I hope we get to the point where we get the stakeholders all involved ... and I hope to be a part of that process," he said.

Becerra also said he's hopeful that legislation to reform California's cash bail system, which stalled last year, is passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this year.

"No one should have to be holed up in jail, waiting for his or her trial -- in other words, innocent until proven guilty -- and run the risk of losing a job, or credits in college, or losing a family relationship, because they don't have enough money," Becerra said. "Decisions to hold someone before trial, in my opinion, should be based on that individual's danger to the public ... or danger to flee."

The attorney general also left open the door to the possibility of an investigation into the allegedly fraudulent cleanup of radioactive material at San Francisco's former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

Becerra noted that the San Francisco district attorney has jurisdiction over the case -- unless there's evidence of a statewide impact. It seems likely that the scandal could have broader implications since much of the dirt cleaned up from the shipyard was taken to landfills around California.

"You know, any time you are talking about radioactive materials, that's big," Becerra said. "We would take seriously any work that we must do when it comes to investigating potential crimes and potential abuse of, in this case, materials that could have a harmful impact on people. But what I can't do is tell you what we might be doing in any particular investigation."

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