California Bill on Deadly Force Would Make It Easier to Charge Police

Supporters of AB 931 fill a room at the California state Capitol. (ACLU of California photo.)

SACRAMENTO (CN) — At the urging of families of Californians killed by law enforcement, lawmakers on Tuesday advanced reforms that would restrict the use of deadly force and make it easier for prosecutors to charge officers who abuse it.

“I know that we can do better,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. “I think most of us realize that without some form of legislation to basically force the agenda and make us do better, it will not happen.”

Assembly Bill 931 walks back California’s “reasonable force rule,” enacted in 1872. The new bill requires officers to consider all nonlethal techniques before shooting or using deadly force, and allows prosecutors and jurors in criminal cases to examine the actions that led up to a fatal police shooting.

The bill calls for police officers to employ de-escalation techniques or risk being fired or criminally charged.

Supporters say it’s a critical update to the state’s outdated use-of-force statute which has not been amended in 145 years.

In the bill’s first legislative hearing this year, the Senate Public Safety Committee approved by a party-line vote.

Friends and family members of Californians killed in police shootings lined the committee room to support for the bill. Some brought photos of victims; others held signs: “Pass #AB931.”

Democratic senators said it was time for Californians to come to terms with and confront racism in law enforcement agencies.

In a passionate speech, state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, said the country does not have a problem with law enforcement, but does have a glaring problem with racism.

“I have friends and family who are in law enforcement, but they will tell you there is no reverence for life when it comes to black men in this country when facing the majority of law enforcement,” said Bradford, a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus.

The proposal is pitting civil rights activists and groups against Sacramento’s influential law enforcement lobby.

Law enforcement groups and their lawyers testified that the bill would force officers to go through a “checklist” during dangerous encounters and impede them from making split-second decisions. They say it opens up officers to unfair scrutiny after the fact, creating a “hindsight guessing game.”

“We think this bill discourages proactive policing by making officers fear the repercussions of making split-second decisions,” testified Cory Salzillo of the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Salzillo elicited boos from the audience when he said it would take a monumental effort for law enforcement agencies to comply with the use-of-force reforms.

“Law enforcement agencies will have to change their policies; they will have to train tens of thousands of officers. … That takes time and it can’t happen overnight,” Salzillo said.

State Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, blasted the bill, saying AB 931 would limit officers’ ability to defend themselves and the public.

“I believe the police officers are not going to rush to a scene to protect me and or my family because they are not going to want to put their lives on the line if they are going to be held in a criminal sense,” Stone said.

Weber introduced the proposal after the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento.

Sacramento police officers responding to calls of car vandalism approached Clark in his grandmother’s backyard and shot him eight times. As shown in body camera footage, the two officers fired 20 times in the dark at the 22-year-old. The next day, investigators confirmed Clark was not armed, but was holding his cellphone when he was shot to death.

The sweeping measure comes amid heightened discussion and scrutiny over fatal police shootings in California and nationwide.

Weber testified that police kill more people in California than in any other state: 162 fatal shootings in 2017.

She said California is home to departments with some of the highest per capita rates of police killings in the nation, including San Bernardino, Kern and Long Beach.

The measured, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and others, will next be heard by a Senate finance committee.

The Legislature is considering another measure that would improve public access to law enforcement personnel records. Senate Bill 1421 would subject personnel records of officers accused of serious wrongdoing to public records requests, and is also sponsored by the ACLU.

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