Bill to Decertify Bad Cops and Limit Immunity Advances in California Senate

A skeptical state Senate committee boosted a statewide decertification process pushed by criminal justice advocates, despite warnings from law enforcement it could lead to an avalanche of pricey litigation.

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California lawmakers on Tuesday advanced contentious legislation that would create a decertification process for rogue officers and is intended to give victims of police violence a better shot in civil court.

Calling it a watershed moment for criminal justice reform in the nation’s most populous state, a California Senate committee voted 7-2 in favor of what both proponents and critics consider to be the most impactful police reform bill of the year.

During an emotional marathon hearing, the bill’s author recited the names of Black Americans recently killed by police and argued California’s refusal to update archaic policing standards continues to stain its progressive image.   

“We lead in technology, we lead in environment, we lead in all those things that are important except for criminal justice reform,” said state Senator Steven Bradford, D-Gardena.

Reviving a proposal that stalled last year, Bradford and civil rights groups are pushing for a statewide decertification process for law enforcement officers convicted of serious crimes or fired for misconduct. They also want to update the state’s Tom Bane Civil Rights Act and make it easier for victims to pursue civil claims in state court by reducing legal immunity for officers.

Currently, California is one of four states along with Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island without official processes to revoke the certificates of disreputable officers. Critics say officers fired for misconduct can easily take advantage of the loophole by simply signing on with another agency.

Under Senate Bill 2, the state would create an advisory board consisting of both members of the public and law enforcement to review allegations of officer misconduct. In conjunction with the existing Peace Officer Standards Accountability Advisory Board, the new board would have the power to revoke an officer’s certification and make all related records public.    

But by lowering the burden of proof standard under the state’s Civil Rights Act, law enforcement groups argue the enhanced threat of costly lawsuits will have a negative impact on policing. Aside from individual officers, they claim cities and counties could be the targets of a flood of future litigation.  

“Given that officers are often required to make split-second decisions under tense and rapidly evolving circumstances, one can see how easy it would be to prove this lowered standard,” the California Police Chiefs Association wrote in an opposition letter. “Financial impacts to cities will also likely be incredibly significant, given this new standard.”

The California State Sheriffs’ Association cast SB 2 as both a financial and public safety threat.

“We are concerned that the language removing employee immunity from state civil liability will result in individual peace officers hesitating or failing to act out of fear that actions they believe to be lawful may result in litigation and damages. In so doing, SB 2 will very likely jeopardize public safety and diminish our ability to recruit, hire, and retain qualified individuals,” it said.

However, many law enforcement groups that adamantly fought against a state decertification process last year have apparently had a change of heart.

Dozens of police chiefs testified they no longer had a problem with the idea of officers losing their jobs for misconduct but instead were concerned about losing their governmental immunity.

“I support decertification but am opposed to SB 2 as proposed,” one-by-one the officers called in to the hearing and repeated from a prepared script.

Bradford, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, says the bill is inspired by the death of Kenneth Ross Jr. who was gunned down in 2018 by a Gardena officer who transferred after multiple other shootings at a nearby department. Bradford has courted a broad group of supporters, including state Senate President Toni Atkins, ACLU of California, California Public Defenders Association and Consumer Attorneys of California.

But unlike his previous bill, which focused on decertification, Bradford beefed up SB 2 by lowering the burden of proof needed to secure wrongful death charges against peace officers. Bradford’s decision to go to bat for the families of fatal police shootings nearly backfired as he was unable to sway the committee’s most influential member.

Though he described SB 2 as “probably the most meaningful” civil justice and policing reform of his legislative career, committee chair state Senator Tom Umberg, D-Orange County, decided it wasn’t fully cooked. Umberg — who refused several amendments proposed by Bradford in recent days — said the proposal to lower the existing intent bar from “specific” to “general” could cause confusion and declined to vote.

“Those need to be defined,” said Umberg, adding that he would support a separate bill creating solely a decertification process.

Following Bradford’s pitch, several Democratic committee members followed Umberg’s lead and initially declined to vote on the bill, leaving its fate in the balance for over six hours.

Fortunately for the proponents, Bradford was able to sway several of the holdouts behind the scenes by promising to consider changes to the Bane Act portion as the bill proceeds.

With Tuesday’s result, SB 2 will advance to a fiscal committee before a potential floor vote. Multiple senators said their future support for the bill is contingent upon whether Bradford accepts changes to the liability language.

Bradford closed by telling the committee members they shouldn’t waste another chance to be on the “right side of history” and join other states in enacting meaningful police reforms.  

“How many more people, regardless of color need to lose their lives because of the callous acts of law enforcement?” Bradford asked the white committee members. “There are two systems of justice in this country; but you’ll never know until you walk a day in my Ferragamos and really understand it’s far different than anything any of you guys have encountered or will encounter.”  

Another set of police reforms gained steam on the other side of the statehouse late Tuesday as the Assembly Public Safety Committee approved legislation requiring new officers be at least 25 years old or hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. 

Currently new peace officers must be high school graduates and at least 18, among other standard law enforcement requirements.

Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer defended the changes by pointing to neurological studies that have found a negative correlation between officer age and instances of deadly force. He says older, more educated departments should reduce tragic officer-involved shootings. 

“The PEACE Act will not only professionalize policing but will also change the department culture away from excessive force,” said Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

If enacted, proponents argue Assembly Bill 89 won’t have an immense impact on the candidate pool available to state and local law enforcement agencies or lead to hiring shortages. Jones-Sawyer also said he’s willing to consider exempting smaller departments from the provisions as talks continue with law enforcement and the Legislature.  

According to the committee’s analysis, just 1.7% of officers at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are under 25, a figure that increases to 11.5% when extended to the state’s over 103,000 officers. 

However, law enforcement groups counter the heightened requirements will have the unintended effect of a less diverse police force.

“Due to the low percentage of college graduates among the minority population, Peace Officers’ Research Association of California believes that mandating a college degree for peace officers will only further exacerbate the lack of diversity in law enforcement. Furthermore, requiring someone to wait to start their career until age 25 is not realistic,” the research association wrote in opposition.

Assemblyman Tom Lackey, who has 28 years of law enforcement experience, voted against the proposal saying education is not the determining factor in recruiting good officers.

“What we’re looking for and what we’ve always been looking for is the heart of a public servant; that’s what makes good law enforcement,” said Lackey, R-Palmdale. “I commend you for trying to improve law enforcement…but I couldn’t disagree more with this particular path.”

Sawyer’s bill, which won’t be applied to current officers, must clear another committee before a full Assembly vote. 

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