RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All right. Throughout her time in politics, Kamala Harris has tried to portray herself as a, quote, "progressive prosecutor." That record is coming under closer scrutiny in the campaign, and some say her record as San Francisco district attorney contradicts that image. Marisa Lagos and Scott Shafer with member station KQED have the story.
SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: In her first run for office in 2003, Kamala Harris knocked off San Francisco's liberal district attorney by running slightly to his right and promising to run a more professional office. But four months in, she faced a trial by fire.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A suspect is in custody in the weekend shooting death of a San Francisco police officer.
MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: A 29-year-old San Francisco police officer, Isaac Espinoza, was shot and killed by a gang member. Harris ran for DA promising never to seek the death penalty. And before Espinoza's funeral, Harris announced she would keep that promise.
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KAMALA HARRIS: In San Francisco, it is the will, I believe, of a majority of people that the most severe crimes be met with the most severe consequences and that life without possibility of parole is a severe consequence.
SHAFER: Barely 90 days into her time as DA, former union President Gary Delagnes says Harris had alienated the San Francisco Police Department.
GARY DELAGNES: By having a press conference before the kid was even in the ground to announce that she was not seeking the death penalty, I mean, it was such a cold political move that, I mean, it just showed a complete lack of compassion.
LAGOS: The timing of her announcement poisoned the young DA's relationship with the police union. But even Delagnes acknowledged she made the right call.
DELAGNES: Obviously, no San Francisco jury was going to convict a 19-year-old African American man. They're not going to give the death penalty to somebody in that situation, and I said that from the beginning.
HARRIS: Harris did get the conviction and sent Espinoza's killer to prison for life without the chance for parole.
LAGOS: The conviction was important to Harris and consistent with her principles, says Suzy Loftus, who worked under Harris as both a deputy district attorney and assistant attorney general.
SUZY LOFTUS: She made the decision quickly, announced it quickly and recognized later that there were so many people who were so deeply impacted in that moment and in grief and in pain. And that loss was exacerbated by an announcement in the middle of it. So I think she endeavored to learn from her mistakes.
LAGOS: Loftus notes, that case didn't change Harris' position on the death penalty.
SHAFER: And Jim Stearns, who ran Harris' first campaign, agrees that while the Espinoza decision soured some in law enforcement on Harris at the time, it also won over some voters.
JIM STEARNS: And I think what galvanized the city for her was, this was the first time people could remember that a politician made a difficult promise, like I will never enforce the death penalty, and actually did it under the most incredible pressure.
LAGOS: That's been a tension throughout her career, says Stearns, between what's expected of her as a member of law enforcement and what's asked of her by progressive activists who see themselves in her.
STEARNS: Kamala has always wanted to have a seat at the table, so it would be a mistake to see Kamala or to expect from Kamala that she is ever going to stand outside of the system and demand the kind of wholesale changes that people who stand out of the system want.
SHAFER: But many of the people Harris hired as DA did go on to push some of California's most sweeping criminal justice reforms and are now at the forefront of conversations around how to make policing more just.
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SHAFER: For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer.
LAGOS: And I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.
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