By Rory Fleming
A 2019 explainer from CalMatters on the difficulties of police reform in Sacramento explained that “at least four legislators are former cops; another is a police chaplain; others have siblings and children in law enforcement.” While that’s a small fraction of the whole—there are 80 seats in the Assembly and 40 seats in the Senate—an Assembly debate on a bill that’s now poised to become law showcased the frequent problems with police officers-turned-politicians.
California law currently prohibits “loitering for the intent to engage in prostitution.” But a 2021 bill—spearheaded by Senator Scott Wiener, passed by the legislature and now imminently due to be sent to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk—would change that.
Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan spoke in support of the bill last September, arguing that policing sex work has led to discriminatory arrests, including against victims of sex trafficking.
But Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a fellow Democrat and one of those former cops in the legislature, said that officers should be able to arrest women who are “dressed like that” and carrying “a purse full of condoms” because they are probably sex workers.
“It’s not rocket science,” Cooper quipped. “You know who the players are and who they aren’t.”
Bauer-Kahan responded, “I know I’m probably not the only woman on the floor that was triggered when one of our colleagues said, ‘Well, they’re dressed that way.’ Being ‘dressed that way’ is not a crime, and it will never be OK to be victimized because you were dressed in any manner.”
Cooper first ran for the state Assembly in 2014, and his campaign slogan was “Put a cop in the Capitol.” While he has often failed to get legislation passed, he has a consistent track record of demanding more policing and more people locked up.
In 2017, Cooper announced that he was drafting the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018, a ballot initiative proposal to roll back much of the state’s recent progress on decreasing its incarceration rate. If passed, it would have made low-level misdemeanor thefts into felonies, decreased opportunities for parole for people with nonviolent convictions, and more.
Ultimately, when the draft was molded into Proposition 20 (2020), over 60 percent of state voters opposed it.
Just this last legislative cycle, Cooper introduced a bill to increase penalties for hate crimes. It died in committee, despite concerns about a spike in hate crimes against Asian American people in California.
Like other “tough-on-crime” forces in California, Cooper frequently claims he acts for crime victims. But his personal record has been marred by incidents including an allegation of sexual misconduct as sheriff’s deputy in Sacramento, and deputies at a jail he oversaw allegedly grossly abused women at the facility.
Cooper’s rhetoric may stand out, but he is far from the only cop-turned-legislator with blind spots arising from a past career obsessing over crime.
When US Representative Val Demings (D-FL) appeared on President Joe Biden’s short list for vice president, the New York Times reported that the former Orlando police chief had ignored officer misconduct. In Congress, Demings has privileged maximum security over civil liberties, voting against a bill amendment that the ACLU said would have “restore[d] constitutional protections and civil liberties for Americans by prohibiting use of funds for certain types of unlawful, warrantless surveillance by the NSA.”
Another example back in California is former US Representative Steve Knight (R-CA), who as a state legislator supported three-strikes sentencing laws and opposed prison realignment, whereby some people convicted of felonies in California would be held in county jails rather than state prison. Knight had spent 18 years as an LAPD police officer. During his time in Congress, Knight voted against a 2015 bill amendment that would have prevented the US Department of Justice from interfering with state cannabis legalization.
Rory Fleming is a writer and licensed attorney.