On Friday, the former state lawmaker Rob Bonta officially became California’s attorney general, stepping into a role that has served as a launching pad for some of the state’s most powerful politicians.
Mr. Bonta was the last of three high-profile appointments by Gov. Gavin Newsom in what observers have described as the most significant reshuffling of Democratic power the state has experienced in years. That Mr. Newsom now has close allies in three of the state’s top posts is likely to pay dividends as he campaigns to keep his job in a recall election later this year.
But political calculus aside, the attorney general wields broad power to shape the state’s criminal justice agenda — a task that has taken on heightened urgency amid a reckoning over racism and police violence.
During his second full day on the job, I spoke with Mr. Bonta about his priorities. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Yesterday your office announced that you would release more gun violence data to researchers and the public. What else is on the agenda in the coming weeks?
Let me just start by saying it’s an honor and a privilege of a lifetime to be appointed to this role. I see the role as the people’s attorney, to fight for everyday folks, to protect them from the abuse of those in power. That’s my frame.
I intend my tenure as A.G. to be defined by transparency and openness.
That’s why it was really important for us to do that yesterday — to help researchers study and identify actions that can help save lives and address our gun violence epidemic. And there will be other areas where we will be promoting those principles.
Too many people are being cheated by corporations. Folks are being forced to drink dirty water or breathe unhealthy air. So many folks are being hurt by parts of our criminal justice system. We are also in a full state of emergency with our Asian and Pacific Islander community when it comes to hate violence.
I wanted to go back, quickly, to the other areas where you think there could be more openness and transparency.
Two things are areas of focus and priority.
We want to make sure we’re disclosing police personnel records consistently as required by Senate Bill 1421, and making sure we’re doing so legally, without violating anyone’s privacy rights. But we’re committed to the letter and the spirit of that law. That’s the point. I voted for it — I was in the Legislature when that was moved.
Another area is using the data that we have in the Department of Justice to help automatically expunge criminal records that are eligible to be expunged, and not force individuals to first know they’re eligible, then apply on a one-off basis and go through the hoops. The law gives them that right, so let’s deliver that right.
What role do you think your office should play in addressing anti-Asian violence and harassment?
Right now, it’s really important for Californians to know that the attorney general sees the community under attack and values the A.P.I. community. For me — I am the community. This is personal.
There are a lot of levers to pull, but there’s no panacea.
I’ll be doing meetings with law enforcement up and down the state to help make sure they’re supported in how they identify and investigate hate crimes. And then figuring out how to move forward using tools we have to hold perpetrators of hate violence accountable and to provide support to victims.
That can take different forms. In-language, mental health and trauma-informed care is needed. And we need to help build trust between community organizations and law enforcement.
You’re also coming in at a pivotal time for criminal justice — Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd last week. And as of last year, your office has greater responsibility to investigate police killings. Tell me about how you’re approaching that part of the job.
I think it was a good start for folks in this moment. The work continues.
The vast majority of law enforcement officers are committed to what we need so much these days: rebuilding trust between law enforcement and our communities. Accountability is part of building that trust.
Our law enforcement needs support and training to do the things we’re asking them to do like community policing, de-escalation, addressing implicit bias or taking on hate crimes.
And yes, under a bill I supported, the attorney general’s office has a clear requirement to investigate, to collect evidence and make a charging decision on all officer-involved shootings that lead to the death of an unarmed Californian. Historically, that’s been about 40 cases per year. So we’re standing up our division to do that and do that right.
It may be sort of easy for Californians to forget that you’ll be up for election next year. And on your first full day in office, Sacramento County’s district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, announced that she will run against you. How would you respond to her claims that policies you’ve supported hurt crime victims and public safety?
I respect our democracy deeply, and whatever the voters decide will be their decision. But I won’t be outworked. I never have been, and I won’t be here. I think my approach, my values, my vision, the things I’m fighting for, the change I seek is what’s going to resonate with Californians across the state.
Are you worried at all that the effort to recall Governor Newsom will impact your campaign as someone who is closely allied with him?
They’re taking a one-in-a-million shot at trying to have a Republican governor in blue California. And it’s not going to happen.
I think he has made courageous, thoughtful and appropriate appointments. He’s put leaders in place that represent communities that haven’t historically had access to certain places and certain opportunities, and he knows we need change.
I don’t want to comment on myself, but Senator Alex Padilla and Dr. Shirley Weber (whom Mr. Newsom appointed as California’s next senator and secretary of state) are inspiring leaders, and I think that will help him in the recall election, because it shows his values.