“The idea there was going to be some far-off figure that was going to be more responsive to the community didn’t seem right to her,” Mr. Nelson said.
On Aug. 11, 2014, two days after Michael Brown was killed in Missouri, police officers in Los Angeles fatally shot Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness, sparking a wave of demonstrations. Ms. Harris deferred to Jackie Lacey, the city’s first Black district attorney, who ultimately brought no charges.
Ms. Harris began her second term as attorney general the next year by outlining steps to make policing fairer and more transparent, saying “we must acknowledge that too many have felt the sting of injustice.” Still, she hesitated, refusing to endorse AB-86, a bill opposed by police unions that would have required her office to appoint special prosecutors to examine deadly police shootings.
In San Francisco, the police killed 18 people during Ms. Harris’s six years as attorney general. But if there was a single flash point, it was the shooting of 26-year-old Mario Woods in December 2015. Widely circulated cellphone videos showed officers surrounding Mr. Woods — disturbed, strung out on methamphetamines and armed with a steak knife. Five officers fired 46 rounds, hitting him with 21.
A series of rallies followed, and an 18-day hunger strike by five men who came to be known as the Frisco Five. Many believed that Ms. Harris would take action, as her predecessor, Jerry Brown, had done in 2009, when he obtained a court order placing the police department in Maywood under his oversight after widespread misconduct.
In a letter to Ms. Harris, Jeff Adachi, then San Francisco’s public defender, urged her to exert her authority in the Woods case and several other shootings. “An investigation,” he said, “would settle the pressing question of whether the racism evidenced in these incidents is endemic.”
Ultimately, it was the Justice Department that intervened, led by Mr. Davis, the former East Palo Alto police chief, who had become director of the agency’s office of community-oriented policing services. Mr. Davis said his work was bolstered by warnings from Ms. Harris that she would investigate the San Francisco police if necessary.