Kristen Clarke, President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as assistant attorney general over the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, faced scrutiny at a hearing on Wednesday for a past op-ed she penned calling to “defund the police” and her unwillingness to recognize justification in some police-involved shootings.
Clarke’s controversial opinion piece, titled “I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police—But Be Strategic,” was published by Newsweek in 2020.
Republicans at the hearing who intensively questioned Clarke, who now claims she does not want to defund the police, include Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).
“I do not support defunding the police,” Clarke said in response to a question from Cruz. “The impetus for writing that op-ed was to make clear that I do not support defunding the police.”
According to Clarke, her motive was to “channel resources to places such as mental health treatment,” telling the senators she does not “support taking away resources from police.”
Cruz was quick to refer to Clarke’s piece, which noted three separate times throughout the body that “we must invest less in police.”
“I wrote that op-ed without having the power of the purse-string behind me,” Clarke replied, suggesting she now supports funding local police departments.
Cotton questioned Clarke about the 2014 officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Ms. Clarke, was Officer Darren Wilson justified when he shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014,” Cotton asked, leading to Clarke’s response that she is “prepared to accept the verdict of the jury.”
Cotton then reminded Clarke she had a different opinion last November when she said:
On this day a grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of #MichaelBrown. It’s a powerful reminder of why we need to make clear that #BlackLivesMatter. We must demand that the Department of Justice resume pattern practice investigations and expand prosecutions involving police shootings.
“I would also point out that Eric Holder’s Department of Justice in March 2015 conducted an extensive review of Officer Darren Wilson’s conduct and concluded that it not support the filing of criminal charges,” Cotton continued. “They issued an 87-page report that was done under the watch of your fellow nominee, Vanita Gupta, I might add.”
Cotton then said, “There have been three separate investigations that have cleared Officer Wilson of wrongdoing.” He also reminded Clarke that she “sent a letter to Congress in which you described the Michael Brown case as ‘prosecutorial decisions not to indict police because of impenetrable qualified immunity for police and acquittals based on racism.'”
“Why do you continue, despite all of this evidence to the contrary from many of your fellow Democrats, to refuse to take a position on whether officer Darren Wilson was justified or not in the shooting of Michael Brown?” Cotton asked.
Clarke responded, telling Cotton she believes “there is a need for greater police accountability” and that there is a “bipartisan agreement on this issue.”
Clarke continued after being pressed to answer if Wilson was justified in the shooting, saying she is “a private citizen.”
“Based on the facts that I know, I’m not privy to the details that the federal government may have been privy to in the course of its investigations,” she said. “As a private citizen, there is something that feels unfair.”
Upon questioning Clarke yielded no progress in receiving an answer, Cotton was interrupted by chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).
“Senator, could you please just allow her an opportunity to respond?” Durbin asked Cotton.
“Could you please stop your pattern of interrupting me repeatedly?” Cotton quipped back. “This happened the last time we had a hearing, and you called a vote in violation of this committee’s rules.”
“I will give you additional time, but I’d like to give her a chance to complete her answer,” Durbin said.
“I’ve asked her a simple yes or no question multiple times, and she refuses to answer it,” Cotton responded. “Thank you, though, for your input. Let’s turn to another case. Jacob Blake. Was Jacob Blake armed when he was shot during an encounter with the police last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin?”
Clarke sated she was “not certain” if Blake had a weapon on him when he was shot by police in Kenosha.
“He was armed with a knife,” Cotton said. “That is not in dispute. Witnesses have said that he was armed with a knife. But, yet again, you jumped to conclusions in the aftermath of that shooting. You repeatedly said on social media that he was unarmed.”
“So today, would you like to take the position on whether Jacob Blake was armed or unarmed in his encounter with the police in Kenosha last summer?” Cotton added.
Clarke responded, “If the subsequent reports revealed to the public that he indeed had a knife, I agree with that factual statement.”
Cotton continued, sharing his concern with Clarke’s nomination:
So Ms. Clarke, here’s my concern. It’s one thing to run a left-wing advocacy organization and always jump to conclusions about police officers who have to use force to protect themselves or to protect innocent, law-abiding Americans. Those are the last people, by the way, who want to have to use force and certainly force that results in a killing. Yet you always jump to those conclusions. It’s one thing to do this as a private citizen, as an advocate, but you are going to have the power of the federal government behind you, and based on your pattern of comments and jumping to conclusions without evidence, every cop in America should be terrified that the Department of Justice is going to jump to a conclusion when they have to make a split-second decision to defend themselves or to defend innocent law-abiding citizens.
Clarke responded, telling senators she has “done this job before.” She stated, “[I will] do what I did as a dedicated career attorney inside the Justice Department, which is follow the facts and the law and be guided by the work of FBI agents and other federal law enforcement agents if and when these matters arise.”
“Police officers all around America can see today that you won’t even agree with Vanita Gupta and Eric Holder that Darren Wilson was justified in the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014,” Cotton concluded, leading Clarke to say, “[I have] not seen that report or read it thoroughly, and I welcome the opportunity to do so.”