California Senate Approves Plan to Decertify and Limit Immunity for Rogue Cops

State Senate Democrats advance police reforms that would permanently strip bad officers of their badges as well as end cash bail for low-level arrests.

The California Capitol building.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Advancing the most heralded police reform of the legislative session, the California Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would create a decertification process and reduce legal immunity for crooked law enforcement officers.

By a 26-9 party-line vote, Senate Democrats OK’d the proposal civil rights groups consider to be the most impactful criminal justice reform of the year. One year after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the bill’s author said the nation’s most populous state could no longer stall in weeding out violent and racist cops.

“Black and brown people are not afforded the same patience, the same restraint or the same respect and reverence for life,” said state Senator Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena, as he rattled off the names of Californians recently killed by police from the Senate floor. “What happened to George Floyd wasn’t rare.”

Bradford is pressing to install a statewide process to permanently remove badges from officers convicted of serious crimes or fired due to misconduct.

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 fired officers 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.

In addition, SB 2 would also update the state’s Tom Bane Civil Rights Act and make it easier for victims to pursue wrongful death claims in state court by reducing legal immunity for officers. The issue of limiting governmental immunity has been a sticking point however and Bradford was forced to take a watered down version to the Senate floor Wednesday.

This isn’t the first time Bradford is making a decertification push. Last year Bradford, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, carried a bill that cleared the Senate but didn’t come up for a vote in the Assembly on the final day of a truncated session. 

After more than an hour of contentious debate dotted with skepticism from some of his Democratic colleagues, Bradford’s latest version is once again headed to the Assembly.

Sponsored by the ACLU of California and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, SB 2 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.

Predictably, the state’s main law enforcement groups are against the bill.

In a previous committee hearing, dozens of police chiefs and sheriffs testified that removing immunity could lead to hesitant officers afraid to protect the public over fear of being sued. They added the reforms could lead to hiring shortages and hefty civil damages for not just individual officers, but cities and counties as well.  

“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,” The California State Sheriffs’ Association wrote in opposition.

While the Senate ultimately approved Bradford’s bill, some of the supporters warned he will have to consider changes to the advisory board and other clarifying language to get SB 2 over the hump later this summer.

But perhaps most importantly for Bradford, he will have the support of one of the most influential Democratic lawmakers as the contentious police reform advances.

“We have spent the last year working closely with Senator Bradford and all stakeholders to ensure this important bill crosses the finish line,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. “Here in California, we are delivering on the promises we made to each other and to our constituents on the steps of the Capitol one year ago.”

Meanwhile, the Senate approved another landmark criminal justice bill that would set bail at $0 for misdemeanors and low-level felonies, and would require money paid for bond to be refunded if charges are dropped or the defendant beats the case. Senate Bill 262 is modeled after the Judicial Council’s decision to set bail at $0 last April, a move intended to keep local jail populations low to mitigate outbreaks of Covid-19.

The bill’s authors called California’s current bail scheme “obsolete” and unfair to minority and poor residents.

“It has cost us millions of dollars without keeping us any safer,” said Majority Leader state Senator Robert Hertzberg. “SB 262 is fair, it is just, and we must act now to put the blueprint together to eliminate this form of economic discrimination, and stop the predatory practice that the bail industry has used for far too long.”

Last November, California voters rejected a measure that would have enacted Senate Bill 10, a law that abolished cash bail in favor of computer-based “risk assessment” models. Under the risk assessment models, judges would decide whether and under what conditions pretrial detainees can be safely released to await trial. 

The bail reform also cleared the state Senate on a party-line vote and moves to the Assembly.

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