Kamala Harris, Police Accountability, And A Trigger-Happy Cop

While the vice president now fashions herself as a police reform advocate, troubling incidents during her time as California’s “top cop” suggest that wasn’t always the case.
Kamala Harris, Police Accountability, And A Trigger-Happy Cop
Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This report was written by Walker Bragman

On March 4, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The new bill was named for George Floyd, who was killed in May 2020 by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who had previously used fatal force and had a history of misconduct complaints. Among other things, the legislation would create a grant program for state attorneys general to assist them in conducting independent investigations in police misconduct cases.

In the lead-up to the vote, Vice President Kamala Harris, who spearheaded similar legislation in the Senate with Cory Booker in June, lauded the bill on Twitter.

“The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act represents an important step towards ensuring more accountability and transparency in policing,” she tweeted. “I join [President Joe Biden] in encouraging Congress to pass this legislation and get it to the President’s desk.”

But Harris was not always so eager to scrutinize officers’ behavior or push for attorney general reviews of police misconduct when she was California’s top law enforcement official, documents reveal.

The Daily Poster has found that when Harris was California’s attorney general, she did not investigate the fatal shootings of two unarmed men by the same Anaheim police officer less than a year apart, despite calls from the city’s mayor and members of the public following the second. Instead, she left the task up to the Orange County District Attorney’s office, which was embroiled in a misconduct scandal and notorious for letting officers off the hook.

At the time, Harris suggested her office would review the findings of the district attorney's office, but The Daily Poster found no evidence that a serious review of the DA report ever took place. The Anaheim police officer, Nick Bennallack, remained on the force for years — and went on to kill again.

The City of Anaheim has already had to spend several hundred thousand dollars in lawsuit payouts over Bennallack’s conduct; a civil rights lawsuit filed late last year over his latest killing is still ongoing.

Harris has enjoyed a trailblazing career in politics. In January, The Los Angeles Times even started a beat dedicated to her historic rise to the White House. The 56-year-old politician of Jamaican and South Asian descent has already written herself into the history books as the first woman to serve as San Francisco District Attorney, California Attorney General, and now Vice President of the United States. She was also the first Black person to have represented California in the U.S. Senate. Now, she is one heartbeat away from the presidency and could be a serious future presidential contender, too.

But as remarkable as Harris’ career is, it has not been without controversy. During her 2020 presidential run, Harris attempted to paint herself as a progressive prosecutor, but critics pointed out that she had embraced the mantle of California’s “top cop” and done little as DA or attorney general to challenge law enforcement power structures, instead pursuing low-level offenses like truancy and drug possession.

Her reluctance to push for more police accountability appears to have extended to failing to investigate an officer with a troubling record at a time when doing so could have prevented killings down the line.

“She neglected a lot of cases in California,” says Genevieve Huizar, the mother of Manuel Angel Diaz, one of the men subsequently killed by Bennallack. “Why she didn’t get involved in these shootings, I don’t know.”

Bennallack’s First Killings

The first unarmed man in Anaheim that Officer Bennallack killed was Filipino-American father Bernie Villegas.

Villegas had been shooting a Red Ryder Daisy BB Rifle in the parking lot of his West Ball Road apartment complex with a friend on Jan. 7, 2012. He had bought the toy as a present for his 14-year-old son, who was inside. A neighbor had called the police, warning about a suspected drug dealer loitering with a gun. Bennallack was one of the responding officers. When they arrived, they found Villegas leaning against the gun, holding it from the barrel.

The officers ordered him to show his hands. Villegas complied but did not let go of the barrel of the BB gun. Bennallack unloaded five rounds without warning. Officers would say they thought the toy was a shotgun.

Seven months later, Bennallack killed again.

He and another officer were on patrol in Anaheim near the 700 block of North Anna Drive on July 21, 2012, when they found 25-year-old Manuel Diaz leaning into a car window in an alleyway. Bennallack did not recognize Diaz, court records say.

The officers ordered everyone to stop what they were doing, but Diaz fled. The officers would later say they suspected criminal activity based on his baggy clothes, location, and behavior. Bennallack gave chase briefly before drawing his service weapon and shooting Diaz twice — once in the buttock, once in the back of the head — outside a nearby apartment complex. Video shows that as the young man lay dying on the ground, Bennallack applied handcuffs rather than administer aid. Diaz later died at the hospital.

The Orange County DA noted in its report that Diaz was a “self-admitted” gang member with prior gun and drug convictions and had drugs in his system at the time, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would later decide in a lawsuit on the matter that such information had “marginal, if any” relevance to liability and damages in the case.

The report also noted that the incident occurred in a so-called “Safety Zone.” The City of Anaheim was in the controversial practice of issuing “gang injunctions,” designating whole blocks as quarantine zones where even mundane activities were restricted. Officers were also empowered to add names to a database of supposed gang members without oversight. Civil liberties advocates pointed out that removing names from that list was nearly impossible and that Black youth, in particular, were targeted.

Huizar, Diaz’s mother, described the hole his death left in her family, noting it stripped her of her youngest child and only son. She cannot talk about what happened without tears nine years later.

“He’s laying on the ground and they turn him over with a bullet in his head and they handcuff him,” she says.

Bennallack would later claim that he saw Diaz reaching for his waistband and throwing an object nearby during the chase that he thought had been a gun. The only item found near the scene was a cell phone. The next day, another Latino man, Joel Acevedo, was fatally shot by Anaheim police. The two killings were the latest in a string of fatalities by police in Anaheim, a city probably best known as the home of Disneyland. The deaths sparked widespread protests and riots in the city, some of which were met with force by law enforcement.

In the wake of the turmoil, Bennellack earned a pejorative nickname: “Backshot.”

An Unanswered Call For Help

In 2011, Harris became California’s attorney general. She’d run on her bonafides as San Francisco District Attorney prosecuting violent crimes and crimes against children, and focused on her past as the daughter of two civil rights activists who “spent full-time marching and shouting about this thing we call justice.” Harris would tell reporters that the heroes for her of the civil rights era were the lawyers.

Harris had a chance to seek justice the next year.

The July 2012 shootings and subsequent unrest sparked a scramble for accountability in Anaheim. While the Orange County District Attorney’s Office would investigate the incidents, as was routine for police shootings, the Anaheim city council asked the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI to conduct independent investigations into the matter and hired The Office of Independent Review (OIR), a contractor that looks into police departments, to examine its police force.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait also asked Harris’ office to conduct an independent review of the most recent two shootings. At the time, Tait told the press, “Whatever the truth is, we will own it.” The national Latino advocacy group Presente.org echoed Tait’s appeal to Harris in a more than petition with more than 17,000 digital signatures.

Tait and the public had valid reasons for asking Harris’ office to get involved. In 2000, California became the first state to grant its attorney general the authority to intervene in law enforcement misconduct cases. Legal experts say such interventions can offer a greater level of scrutiny and objectivity than other kinds of police audits.

Reviews by local district attorneys are often seen as unreliable since the attorneys work closely with law enforcement in ways that could create conflicts of interest. And while the Department of Justice has authority under the 1994 crime bill to conduct reviews of potential systemic police abuses, such investigations have limitations. The agency lacks the power to subpoena internal documents from local police departments and has been hobbled by chronic underfunding.

Calls mounted, therefore, for Harris to investigate. Protestors gathered outside her Sacramento office. Huizar was among them, demanding justice for her son.

At first, the efforts appeared successful. In July 2012, four days after Tait’s request, the mayor told The Orange County Register that the Attorney General had agreed to investigate the shootings.

By October, however, Harris’ office suggested the investigation might not happen.

“We are advised that the Orange County District Attorney's office is conducting a thorough examination into all of these incidents. Once that review is completed we can best evaluate what if any involvement by this office is appropriate,” her office’s Press Secretary Lynda Gledhill said.

Speaking to The New York Times in August 2020, Tait recalled receiving a phone call from Harris two days after he asked her to intervene, denying his request.

In March 2013, the district attorney’s office released its report on the shootings, finding Bennallack was justified in shooting Diaz.

Evidently, Harris’ office was satisfied with the DA’s findings. A Daily Poster public records request with the California Attorney General’s office turned up no records of any investigations or findings related to the Villegas, Diaz, or Acevedo shootings. Nor did it turn up any communications related to the shootings between the AG’s office and the Anaheim Police Department, the local DA, or the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Additionally, a public records request to the Orange County DA’s office yielded no records of communications between them and Harris’ office.

Similarly, the FBI declined to conduct a full investigation into the shootings, telling OC Weekly that it planned on merely reviewing the DA’s report. The Daily Poster’s public records request to the DA turned up no records of communications with the U.S. Attorney’s office over the killings.

The OIR’s report, released in 2015, recommended several changes to Anaheim Police Department policy, including shortening the 48-hour waiting period to interview officers after shootings and updating rules regarding police pursuits.

Diaz’s family, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against the city and the police department over his shooting. After the DA’s office released its report allowing Bennallack to remain on the force, the attorney representing the family, Dana Douglas, told reporters she believed the officer would likely repeat his behavior.

“Unfortunately someone like Nick Bennallack, with a nervous disposition and a quick trigger finger, can get onto the Anaheim Police Department and nothing happens, said Douglas. "He’s out there today ready to shoot a third victim.”

“It Was Almost Like A Second Death”

Two years after the Diaz killing, Bennallack, who had been moved to the SWAT team, was involved in a third fatal police shooting. He was of five officers who shot and killed Steen Thomas Parker. Parker was white and engaged in a firefight with officers. Parker had previously been arrested for rape, according to the Orange County DA report, which cleared Bennallack and his colleagues of any wrongdoing in the shooting.

In April 2019, after Harris had moved from attorney general to U.S. senator, Bennallack fatally shot another unarmed Latino man. Thirty-year-old father Daniel Ramirez III had been at a garage where Irvine police were attempting to serve a search warrant for theft of guitars and amplifiers from a vehicle. The situation had led Ramirez and another man to barricade themselves in an attic. That’s where they were when members of the Anaheim SWAT team — including Bennallack — arrived.

Body cam footage released by the Orange County DA shows that Ramirez and the other man initially refused to come down while officers fired pepper balls into the attic. The men threatened to shoot back, but soon Ramirez’s colleague surrendered to police without incident.

After a 12-minute standoff, Ramirez relented and descended from the attic, pleading with the officers not to shoot him. While he was out of view of the officers’ body cameras, according to the district attorney’s later review of the incident, Ramirez then refused to surrender and instead turned to run deeper into the garage. At that point, an officer fired a non-lethal round that struck Ramirez in the right lower back. In the footage, Ramirez is heard screaming in pain. Seconds later, Bennallack is seen firing four live rounds in rapid succession. After a brief pause, he fired a fifth time.

Paramedics attempted to revive Ramirez, but could not save him. He was unarmed, although two loaded weapons were found elsewhere in the garage according to the Orange County DA.

For Ramirez’s younger step-brother Levi — who asked to be identified as Levi Ramirez Dixon because “he’s my step-brother but he feels like blood” — the killing is raw and unforgivable.

“Everyone in our family is missing a part of their heart because they’ve lost Daniel,” he says.

Dixon acknowledges that Ramirez struggled as he got older, and had done time in jail. He says he once saw Ramirez with a gun but never thought of him as dangerous. He says Ramirez loved his daughter “more than anything,” and the 6-year-old girl has taken the loss of her father hard.

Last June, Dixon and his family marched on the Anaheim Police Department. Dixon had hoped to talk to Bennallack, but when they arrived, the building was barricaded and nobody came outside.

“It was almost like a second death,” he says.

Dixon says he has lost complete faith in law enforcement and does not want to call the police for help again.

Once again, the Orange County DA’s office cleared Bennallack for killing Ramirez. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who succeeded Harris and is now Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, did not appear to investigate the matter, as his office told The Daily Poster it had no records regarding any investigation.

In each of Bennallack’s three killings of unarmed individuals over eight years, the local district attorney’s office cleared him of all wrongdoing, and the attorney general’s office never once got involved.

“One Of The Most Scandal-Ridden And Criticized Government Figures”

When state legislation came up in 2014 that would have required the attorney general’s office to conduct independent investigations into police shootings, Harris spoke out against the bill on the grounds that it took prosecutorial power away from local district attorney offices.

“I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys,” she said.

But in the case of Orange County, the district attorney’s office might not have deserved Harris’ deference.

At the time, the office was helmed by Tony Rackauckas, who was described in 2018 by ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme as “one of the most scandal-ridden and criticized government figures in California.”

Those scandals included a systematic jailhouse snitch scheme and the practice of routinely withholding evidence from defense attorneys.

The jailhouse-snitch revelations, which came to light in 2011, caused a judge in 2015 to recuse the entire DA’s office from the death penalty case of Scott Dekraai, the man behind Orange County’s worst mass shooting — a decision Harris’ office unsuccessfully appealed. As OC Weekly put it, the scandal led to at least 20 felony cases in the office being tainted by the hint of corruption. Harris’ office would eventually launch a probe into the scandal in 2015. That ended four years later under Becerra without explanation.

One of the figures at the center of the affair, Dan Wagner, was the same assistant district attorney who twice helped clear Bennallack of wrongdoing, first by signing off on the Villegas shooting report, then by authoring the subsequent Diaz shooting report. In December 2019, Wagner left the DA’s office amid further scandal. Internal whistleblower complaints alleged he had engaged in covering up misconduct.

The 2019 shooting report clearing Bennallack in the death of Ramirez fell to a different assistant district attorney: Andrew Bugman. He, too, has been caught up in the controversy. Bugman defended the concealment of impeachment materials related to the jailhouse-snitch scandal by Rackauckus’ successor, DA Todd Spitzer.

Imperfect Justice

In 2017, a jury awarded Diaz’s family $200,000 over his death, finding that Bennallack had used excessive force in the shooting. A year later, however, in a lawsuit brought by the family of the first man Bennallack killed, Bernie Villegas, a jury found in favor of the police.

Federico Sayre, the attorney who represented Villegas’ family in that case, told The Daily Poster that the Orange County DA’s office “always” clears police officers in shootings and that it’s very difficult to get a jury to rule in favor of victims’ families.

A review by The Daily Poster of 253 incident reports listed on the Orange County DA’s website in which someone was either shot by police or died while in police custody between January 2010 and March 2020 found that prosecutors cleared the law enforcement personnel involved every time.

Bennallack is no longer employed by the City of Anaheim, according to Sgt. Shane Carringer. Carringer said he could not provide other information about Bennallack, but noted the separation occurred months ago.

“I don’t think it’s quite been a year,” Carringer said.

Moving forward, all incidents similar to those in which Bennallack had been involved will be investigated by the state’s top prosecutor. In September 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law requiring the state attorney general to investigate all fatal police shootings of unarmed individuals.

Becerra, like his predecessor Harris, opposed the idea. He called an early version of the bill “untenable and unreasonable” due to the monetary cost to his office.

The same month the bill was signed, Ramirez’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Bennallack, the City of Anaheim, and the City of Irvine over his death. Dale Galipo, the lawyer behind the case, was the same civil rights attorney who represented Diaz’s family.

Responding to an inquiry whether or not he felt the state’s justice system had failed Diaz and Ramirez, Galipo gave a one-word answer: “Yes.”

Genevieve Huizar, Manuel Diaz’s mother, left, and members of Daniel Ramirez’s family

Huizar, Diaz’s mother, works to find strength in family and religion. But she says she will bear the pain of losing her son for the rest of her life.

”You kinda have to live life without him, but he was a really good son,” she says, her voice breaking. “He was just the light of our family.”

Huizar usually avoids politics and never considered Harris particularly responsible for her family’s pain. But given Harris’ lack of response to her son’s killing when she was attorney general, the Vice President’s recent posturing as an advocate for police accountability strikes her as hypocritical.

Harris, she says, “should have done a better job.”


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